30 years of resilience: Vancouver's queer film fest illuminates the full beauty of LGBTQ lives

The festival started in 1988 as a complement to the Gay Games — but it's stuck around for three decades to give the city a uniquely queer space.

The festival started in 1988 to complement the Gay Games — but it's stuck around for three decades since

Yen Tan's 1985 looks back to the year Ronald Reagan publicly acknowledged the AIDS crisis for the first time — after it had already killed more than 5,000 people. (Courtesy of Vancouver Queer Film Festival)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

(Vancouver Queer Film Festival)

Next week, one of Canada's premiere LGBTQ film events is facing what is many-a-queer's greatest fears: it is turning 30. But the Vancouver Queer Film Festival — a year younger than Montreal's Image+Nation and a few years older than Toronto's Inside Out — has no such age anxiety. It's ready to celebrate.

"This year we are taking our audience to the moon and back through 30 years of uplifting queer stories," VQFF executive director Stephanie Goodwin tells CBC Arts.

Goodwin and the rest of the VQFF team are commemorating their birthday by screening new films about LGBTQ history.

"We wanted to hold up new film and art while also looking back instead of rescreening the festival's previous films," she says.

That theme begins on the festival's opening night August 9th, when Yen Tan's fantastic 1985 kicks things off. As the title suggests, the film is set a few years before VQFF began, and tackles the onset of the AIDS crisis through the lens of a young man returning to his small Texas town. Shot in black and white, the film will appropriately be followed by the festival's opening night Black and White Ball.

As the festival continues, dozens of other new films will look back (like The Fruit Machine, Every Act of Life, Shakedown, Miss Rosewood and 50 Years of Fabulous, for example), though the festival itself will also be looking to the future — by remaining true to its roots.

Jethro Patalinghug's 50 Years of Fabulous explores the history of San Francisco's Imperial Council. (Courtesy of Vancouver Queer Film Festival)

Interestingly enough, the festival was born in large part as a response to Vancouver's successful bid to host the Gay Games (essentially the queer Olympics). The city's LGBTQ community wanted an event for arts and culture to go along with all the sports. But, while the Gay Games were a one-off, VQFF kept going. And its purpose — Goodwin believes — was to serve two key functions: "to showcase stories and films not screened anywhere else and to have a uniquely queer space for the community to gather and celebrate each other."

Now, clearly there's been a lot of advancement with respect to LGBTQ folks and their representation in film — but Goodwin says the role the festival occupied early on remains just as critical in 2018 as it did in 1988.

"While there are now Hollywood films about queer people, which is wonderful and important, they remain focused on our coming out stories or the world's reaction to our queerness," she says. "[They] fail to capture the full beauty and complexity of our lives, and those stories that are told do not centre or celebrate many people in our communities whose stories are so rich and so often overlooked or erased, like trans women of colour."

Leilah Weinraub's Shakedown celebrates Los Angeles's underground dance parties for Black lesbians in the '80s. (Courtesy of Vancouver Queer Film Festival)

Thus, VQFF's mandate is to illuminate, celebrate and advance all queer lives.

"We forefront stories from the margins of LGBT2Q+ communities and hold up rich complex stories that don't get visibility elsewhere," Goodwin says. "And we forefront film that queers the narrative, filmmaking that challenges who tells our stories and how these stories are told. We continue to be a festival that welcomes all filmmakers and stories, and this type of inclusion and representation is incredibly rare — and critical to our social and cultural landscape."

VQFF also continues to be a festival of community, providing a uniquely queer space for 11 days and nights.

"Queer and trans folk from all over the city and further afield can find a safe space, find old and new friends, and be affirmed for who they are," Goodwin says. "This may not seem like a big deal but when there are few to no queer spaces left in Vancouver's gentrifying landscape, this space continues to be just as important now as it was 30 years ago, even if the social landscape has shifted somewhat."

Sarah Fodey's Fruit Machine reveals the story of Canada's homosexuality detection device. (Courtesy of Vancouver Queer Film Festival)

Goodwin feels we all seek to have places of belonging — "spaces where we can and are encouraged to be ourselves, spaces of our own."

"For many in LGBT2Q+ communities, the festival is one of those liminal spaces that provide a sense of belonging and community," she says. "So the festival started out as a way bringing culture to sport, but it quickly and continues to evolve into a space where community finds itself and creates stronger more resilient LGBT2Q+ communities as a result."

Here's to 30 more years of manifesting that resilience, VQFF. And happy birthday from CBC Arts.

Vancouver Queer Film Festival. August 9-19. Vancouver.


Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and hosting the video interview series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.