They're here, they're queer — and they're unlike any other LGBTQ film fest

As LGBTQ film festivals and Pride celebrations move closer to the mainstream, some audiences are finding that alternatives are increasingly necessary.
Let Me Be Me, Not a Man, Not a Woman, But a Hijra by Matteo Vegetti (Toronto Queer Film Festival)

Canada's largest LGBTQ film festival, Inside Out, celebrated its 26th birthday in May, and as we wrote last month, it's as relevant as ever. But as LGBTQ film festivals and Pride celebrations move closer and closer to the mainstream, and as their relationship with corporate sponsors becomes entrenched, some audiences find that alternatives are increasingly necessary. That's why the first ever Toronto Queer Film Festival is launching this week (June 22-24).

The brainchild of queer film and video artist Kami Chisholm, the festival will be held at Toronto's Cinecycle, an old coach house near Spadina Avenue — about as far from a multiplex as a cinema can be. Chisholm says the festival was borne out of the same concerns that drove her to make the documentary Pride Denied (which will screen as part of TQFF's closing night program).

When Pride Toronto put in a bid to host World Pride two years ago, Chisholm frequently found herself discussing mutual frustrations with friends and acquaintances about how Pride had evolved. In her words, it had gone "from a grassroots protest against police and state violence into an apolitical, corporate-sponsored party in which notions of 'safe space' are promoted that largely exclude members of our community who are not wealthy or white."

Pride Denied by Kami Chisholm (Toronto Queer Film Festival)

"Over the last several decades, mainstream LGBTQ cultural institutions such as Pride Toronto have focused on growing ever bigger, making questionable decisions about how to raise multimillion dollar budgets that go towards paying for things like international celebrities, elite parties and exorbitant salaries for a select few while failing to address the ongoing crises affecting a significant constituency of queer and trans folks who don't have access to basic things such as adequate housing, healthcare and economic security," she argues.

According to her, such actions have led many in the LGBTQ community to feel disinterested, or potentially even unwelcome, at cultural spaces and events. So she decided to make a film — and a festival — in response.

"Two years ago I set out to make Pride Denied to document how this has come about, and this year I decided to expand the project by starting a film festival that creates the kind of space that I would like to see more of in Toronto: one in which the serious issues that many queer and trans people experience on a daily basis aren't whitewashed and ignored, and that focuses on celebrating and supporting the activist and artistic pursuits of members of our community who increasingly feel uncomfortable in many of these other 'LGBT' spaces."

The festival's programming spotlights innovative activist and experimental film and video, and Chisholm says the first edition reflects those priorities.

"One of our major concerns is how, just as making moving-picture work has never been more affordable or accessible, most film festivals have taken on the role of gatekeepers who focus on programming big budget, high production-value work that we would argue frequently has little cultural or political/activist value," she says. "As such, we deliberately chose not to program any conventional narrative films, even though at least half of the submissions to the fest fit this criteria."

Instead, TQFF selected a number of films and videos which were made with little or no budget on available technologies such as cell phones, but that take up issues and themes the programmers feel are important to the LGBTQ community. Chisholm notes that most of the festival's films "have not as of yet found a place in any other cultural venues in Toronto" and that the event will mark the world premieres for several.

White Fur by Neve Be and Nikki Silver (Toronto Queer Film Festival)

As the festival looks beyond its debut year, the team's priority is less about adding additional programming as it is about thinking of how they can grow the programming's quality.

"This would likely include initiatives to either commission work or find other ways to support both new and experienced filmmakers produce the kind of films that we, and we believe our audience, want to see and that we aren't really getting elsewhere in Toronto," she explains. "In that spirit, this year we have partnered with the CaribbeanTales Film Festival, which is launching a short film challenge at our opening night program for queer and trans people of colour. We hope this challenge inspires many new and up-and-coming filmmakers to start making work that we can program in future years."

Going forward, the festival hopes to focus on how they can further make and create spaces that offer an "interesting, fun, and educational alternative to the corporate, apolitical orgyfest of some of these other LGBT cultural institutions in Toronto." Most importantly, their ultimate goal is simple but bold: creating an event that "supports and nurtures artists in ways that innovatively challenge the premises and standard operating procedures of most of the big budget film festivals — LGBT and not, here and internationally."

Toronto Queer Film Festival. June 22-24. Cinecycle, Toronto.