How our documentary imagines a safer world for queer folks in religious communities

Ari Conrad Birch and Michal Heuston's film A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living, premiering at Inside Out 2023, follows four LGBTQ people on their respective spiritual journeys.

A queer's guide to making A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living

Still frame from the film A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living. Documentary participant Summeiya sits on their bed looking at photos, with a rainbow flag on the wall behind them.
Summeiya in A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living. (Ari Conrad Birch/Michal Heuston)

Cutaways is a personal essay series where filmmakers tell the story of how their film was made. This Inside Out 2023 edition by Ari Conrad Birch and Michal Heuston focuses on their film A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living, an exploration of the intersections between faith and queerness.

June 2020. Inside of a small Toronto apartment, two friends seeing each other for the first time since the start of COVID lockdowns rest on either end of a couch, a tiny kitten tucked between them.

Michal: "Sometimes, I catch myself behaving in a certain way or believing something to be inherently true, and I realize that it's actually just something that the church instilled in me from a very young age."

Ari: "A big one for me is feeling like all my actions and thoughts constantly contribute to some kind of massive spiritual war that is being waged at all times — like the fate of the world literally rests on how 'good' or 'bad' a person I am."

These were the conversations that led to our documentary, A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living, a zine-inspired film that follows four queer folks on their respective spiritual journeys, exploring the surprising ways that their queerness and spirituality intersect.

When queer people are able to engage in conversation with people they trust about something as sensitive as their experiences with faith, they are able to wade through the nuances of those experiences and find ways to make sense of the complexity. And we know firsthand how healing this process can be. 

Title art for A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living. Photos of the film's subjects and playful illustrations of clouds surround the centre title, which reads "A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living" inside a purple circle.
A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living. (Ari Conrad Birch/Michal Heuston)

While neither of us currently participate in the religion we were brought up in, we both find spirituality elsewhere. As transgender people, for example, we have both found incredible meaning in the spiritual act of self-creation. Our post-lockdown conversations shifted from commiserating over our Christian pasts to exploring fluidity and transformation as spiritual concepts, and we grew curious about other ways that spirituality and queerness can intersect. We began to dream up a project that would allow us a glimpse into the journeys of others like us.

The idea of a guide was there from the beginning: we wanted to illuminate the possibilities of engaging with spirituality in a queer way (and vice versa) since these two ways of being are often seen as incompatible. We wanted people who watched the film to walk away feeling like something they had previously thought was impossible could actually be approached in many beautiful ways — and most importantly, that they don't have to figure it all out alone. 

We knew based on our own histories that there was as much joy to be found in these stories as there was frustration. And we also knew that usually these stories get told for the benefit of religious audiences. Films similar to ours often ask, "How can religious communities become more accepting of queer people?" So instead, we asked, "What do we wish our fellow queers understood about their spiritual and religious community members?" 

Still frame from the film A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living. Wide shot of the altar and pews of a church.
Ari (participant, not filmmaker) in A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living. (Ari Conrad Birch/Michal Heuston)

We like to say that this is a film without much conflict. Aren't we all a little tired of stories like these being total bummers anyway? Instead, we invite the audience to experience the same beauty that we got to experience: to meet four incredible queers and fall in love with them all. 

Because of the close relationship that the two of us share, it was easy to look out for one another as we worked on this project. Since we knew that topics like evangelism, shame, and charismatic expressions of worship could be stress points for us, we used our dual roles as producers and directors to our advantage, trading off duties as needed in order to weather the hardest moments. We quickly established a working rhythm that protected our energy and our emotional capacities.

That same energy was brought to our relationship with the film's participants: Ari, Juliana, Summeiya and Vaibhav. There was a great vulnerability that came with sharing so much of themselves with us, so on the advice of other community-based filmmakers, we took our duty of care to our participants very seriously. We did our best to structure interviews in ways that offset the power imbalance of traditional documentary filmmaking, and worked collaboratively with the film's participants in how their story was presented.

Everything about our process in making this film was about prioritizing safety — because it's the lack of safety experienced by queer folks in religious communities that we are working against.

Still frame from the film A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living. Documentary participant Viabhav packs a suitcase in their kitchen, viewed from another room between the walls.
Viabhav in A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living. (Ari Conrad Birch/Michal Heuston)

We hope that this film's celebration of complex queer faith journeys will be meaningful to anyone who sees it. We're immeasurably grateful to everyone involved for trusting us with their stories, and we hope that the care and community effort that went into its creation shines through. And that's what this film has always been: a labour or love.

A Queer's Guide to Spiritual Living screens at Inside Out 2023 on Friday, May 26.


Ari Conrad Birch (they/he) is a filmmaker, writer and podcast editor from Toronto.

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