5 pioneering LGBTQ Canadian films you can watch for free right now
You probably have the time, so why not brush up on the homegrown cinema of yesterqueer?
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
As the first and hopefully only National Canadian Film Day to occur in the middle of a global pandemic, many of us are finding ourselves with a little extra time on our hands. So as we wait out however long it's going to take before it's okay to leave our houses (that is, of course, if we're privileged enough to be able to stay at home), why not brush up on the LGBTQ films of Canada's yesterqueer?
I don't mean Jean-Marc Vallée's 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y. or Xavier Dolan's 2009 debut I Killed My Mother, or even John Greyson's 1996 film Lilies (though please check those out too if you somehow have not) — I'm talking ultra pioneering movies that truly paved the way. And blessed be: five of the most seminal examples are available online...for free.
Winter Kept Us Warm (1965)
Celebrating its 55th anniversary this year, filmmaker David Secter made Winter Kept Us Warm when he was a student at the University of Toronto in 1965. It stars John Labow and Henry Tarvainen as two U of T students who develop a quasi-romantic relationship — which is heavily coded given this was made in a pre-Stonewall world where gay romance was quite literally forbidden. Still, it is widely considered the first gay film ever made in Canada and has the further distinction as the first English-language Canadian film to ever screen at the Cannes Film Festival. It's also a remarkable time capsule into 1960s Toronto, offering a glimpse of what it might have been like to be queer in that context.
Montreal Main (1974)
In his autobiographical 1974 film Montreal Main, director, writer and actor Frank Vitale plays a photographer living in the bohemian arts community in Montreal's Le Plateau neighbourhood (the film is named after Boulevard St. Laurent, then known as "Montreal Main"). In the film, he develops a relationship with a teenage boy that, though non-sexual, causes an uproar because of the then-very-common stereotype that gay men were prone to pedophilia. It's a brave and original film that holds up incredibly well some 45 years later.
Outrageous! is the story of a Toronto hairdresser who aspires to become a famous female impersonator (Craig Russell, a legendary drag queen himself) and his schizophrenic roommate (Hollis McLaren) — and there's nothing else like it. It's not just because of its gritty portrait of life in 1970s Toronto and Russell's uncanny impersonations of everyone from Barbra Streisand to Judy Garland to Bette Midler — it's also simply the fact that a movie with such unapologetically gay content didn't just get made but became an international sensation. Russell won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 1978 Berlin Film Festival, and the film even got a very positive review from a young Roger Ebert.
I've Heard The Mermaids Singing (1987)
The directorial debut of now-iconic Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema, 1987's I've Heard The Mermaids Singing, follows Polly (Sheila McCarthy), an "organizationally impaired" temp who finally gets her first job working for as a secretary for art curator Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), whom she begins to idolize. But when Gabrielle's ex-lover Mary (played by Ann-Marie MacDonald, no less) shows up, things get complicated...and a strange and beautiful film takes shape. Nominated for nine Genie Awards (winning two for McCarthy and Baillargeon's performances), Mermaids both launched Rozema's career and gave Canada a very notable addition to its queer film canon.
Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992)
Produced by Studio D, the women's studio at the National Film Board of Canada, Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman's 1992 documentary Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives deep dives into the extraordinary history of Canadian queer women in the 1950s and 1960s. Structured through interviews, archival footage, and a stylized fictional narrative based on the pulp novels of the 1950s, Forbidden Love was the first overtly lesbian film made at the National Film Board and remains an empowering window into this country's herstory. (It's also, at times, genuinely hilarious, making for a truly uplifting watch.)
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