Melt your inner polar vortex with this queer, Peaches-inspired take on classic summer camp movies
Inspired by 90s band Mermaid Café, the new film 'Gabey and Mike' will warm your cold winter hearts
Call it a cinematic teaches of Peaches.
For the past year or so, Alexis Mitchell and Stephanie Markowitz's film "Gabey and Mike: A Jewish Summer Camp Love Story" has been screening at film festivals around the world, and now it's made its way online just in time to add some much-needed summer glows to your January lows.
A playfully sincere love letter to the sounds of summer camp, the movie tells the story of the band Mermaid Café, whose Merrill Nisker you may know better as boundary-pushing Canadian musician Peaches. Moving from music video re-enactments of Mermaid Café songs, to interviews with the band members — Nisker, Andi D and Joe A. Rider — the film is a meditation on Jewish Canadian summer camps and the queer feelings that linger far after the summer is over.
Watch the film below, and then read an interview with Mitchell and Markowitz about how the film came about.
How did you two meet?
Stephanie Markowitz: Actually...
Alexis Mitchell: Yeah, it was probably 2008 or 2009...
SM: We met because we were dating the same person for a minute. And it's kind of this classic queer story where we had heard about each other before we met, and we kind of loved and hated each other.
AM: Ha! And then we got to know each other a bit and realized our childhoods kind of overlapped, and that we totally adored each other!
So, tell me a little bit about how the film was born.
AM: Stephanie and I were at The Beaver in Toronto, a small bar on Queen Street West that really held a community of queers and weirdos for quite some time before the most aggressive onslaught of gentrification hit Queen West (cue nostalgic sobs). We were standing outside on the back patio having a drink and Stephanie started humming and singing this song "Gabey and Mike." It was this tragic tale about two young boys in love that I used to sing in the 1990s when I was a kid at Jewish summer camp in the middle of the woods in Ontario. I didn't think anyone else other than my fellow campers knew it. I excitedly stopped her and asked how she knew that song.
SM: I was like, "Yeah, 'Gabey and Mike!' We used to sing it at summer camp! It's by a band called Mermaid Café and Peaches was in it!"
AM: I think my next words were probably something like, "We need to make a film about this."
SM: Then a few months later, we randomly ran into Peaches at that same queer bar, The Beaver, and we gushed to her about Mermaid Café — a band she likely hadn't thought about since 1992 — and ended up pitching the project to her. Next thing we know she's texting her old bandmate (and ex-girlfriend) Andi D about the project.
And so your film is a love story about Jewish Canadian summer camps and the queer feelings that happen at summer camp. How do you see "Gabey and Mike" fitting into the genre of summer camp movies?
AM: Both Stephanie and I had sung the song at Jewish summer camps, and we later found out that Peaches and Andi actually met at a Jewish summer camp, so the camp connection was difficult to ignore! Mermaid Café, this lesbian folk band that became a mainstay within this circuit of Jewish summer camps in Canada, was our way into an exploration about the queerness of the summer camp.
SM: To me, the film is both a love story to and critical examination of a place that is filled with contradiction for us both personally and institutionally. Alexis and I had very different experiences as children — I completely drank the camp Kool Aid while Alexis had a much more awkward and challenging experience.
AM: Uh, yeah. I was a bit of a butchy kid — not so cool in the 90s!
SM: We tried to reflect on how the summer camp space advertises an experience of total freedom and wild abandon, but is actually a very regimented, heteronormative and politicized environment.
AM: And we chose to stage these contradictions through the aesthetics of the film. So we created a classic summer camp movie, with all of the saturation, nostalgia, sex and tears common in this genre — but we also brought in a number of classic queer movie references for each of the Mermaid Café "music videos" in the film, like Heavenly Creatures, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Brokeback Mountain.
SM: We were also really inspired by the musical film Tomorrow is Always Too Long by Phil Collins which is a musical love letter to Glasgow and combines animation, music and documentary.
Alexis, you've done a lot of research on summer camps as part of your PhD. What is the summer camp movement?
AM: Yeah, this project also dovetailed with me beginning a PhD about the Jewish summer camp movement — so we nod to this history in the film as well. The movement began in North America at the end of the 19th century. Summer camps were one of many responses to industrialization. People were worried that cities would produce morally and physically "weak" children, and therefore saw spending time in the countryside, chopping wood and building fires as a way to correct this. It was also a way of taking new immigrants, who were being crammed into tenements, out to the wilderness to regain their health and physical strength. Jewish educators and ideologues quickly recognized the summer camp's power in creating Jewish community, and so throughout this 150-year history you do see bursts of popularity in moments when the Jewish community was suffering. But the reason why we think of the summer camp as an 1980s or 1990s phenomenon is actually because of the movie industry. It became an environment that was rife with 1990s sexual dramas and Hollywood endings!
And you can hear that 90s movie vibe in the voiceover that begins the film. The narrator says: "An unknown folk band named Mermaid Café took the Jewish Canadian camp world by storm." The film is both playfully poking fun at itself and also invested in telling the history of the cultural phenomenon that is the band Mermaid Café.
SM: Yes, the wonderful Morgan Bassichis wrote and performed the voice over and also developed our narrations. We wanted to find a playful and fun way to interweave the story of the band into the story of the Jewish summer camp.
AM: Yep! For us, the film was always a "campy" take on summer camp. But since the codes of the summer camp are already so overtly campy, many people read the film as 100% sincere. So we brought in the "gay voice of God" as we liked to call him to hint to the audience that there's a level of play in the film — and if you view the film in this way, it might queer some of the aspects of summer camp we often take for granted, like how totally bizarre and problematic these "colour war" competitions are.
To me, the film is both a love story to and critical examination of a place that is filled with contradiction for us both personally and institutionally.- Stephanie Markowitz , filmmaker
So, what is it about summer camp nostalgia that is so resonant for so many people? Do you think that it has to do with being away from parents or maybe first kisses and sexual experimentation?
AM: Ooh, this is really the question!
SM: Yes! I mean, for me growing up in the sprawling suburbs as an only child, the chance to sleep and play so intimately with other kids was kind of mindblowing. I remember being 14, returning from camp one summer and spending an entire day crying while listening the camp records on repeat. I think the nostalgia is connected really to being very young, hormonal and feeling so deeply. I was totally brainwashed! Ha.
AM: The film hints at this a bit toward the end when you see children banding together in competition or crying around the campfire. Nostalgia is built directly into the space, and it's created through a variety of means, including the intensity of emotions that are on display within the summer camp. Our goal in introducing queerness into this space, via Mermaid Café and "Gabey and Mike," was to have an audience ask questions about this tightly sealed community, and to be curious and critical about the role of nostalgia in these spaces rather than revel in the exuberance produced there every summer — though hopefully there's some summer camp fun in the film too!
And what was it like to return to summer camp?
SM: Really amazing and weird. Being in that same environment but in a totally different context with our super queer cast and crew was a beautiful thing. And in a way, our team kind of drank the summer camp Kool Aid too — as it easily became quite the bonding experience!
AM: Actually, when we were trying to figure out where we could shoot this film, I was like, "I have this weird memory from when I was a camper that when we left at the end of every summer, a group of gay adults took our place." That memory was of course steeped in childhood homophobia, but sure enough, it was true!
Like, gay adults would use the summer camp when you weren't there as kids?
AM: After the kids left at the end of the summer, a group of gay adults came up for one week to use the facilities — it's their summer vacation. It was great to return in this way, to have our queer cast and crew sleep in the same bunk beds I slept in as a child.
And now that this film is being released to the public, is there an audience you want to see it, or hope sees it?
SM: Mermaid Café had a cult-like following in Toronto and at Jewish summer camps around Ontario. It would be fantastic for these fans to see the film.
AM: Yeah, and all the people we went to camp with, the ones who have probably forgotten how obsessed they were with this song. And then we'll remind them!
SM: For sure. This is for all the young girls who sat in the front row and cried when they listened to "Gabey and Mike" — and all the butchy kids who faked those tears in order to fit in!
Watch "Gabey and Mike: A Jewish Summer Camp Love Story" online now on Vimeo.