Why we still need LGBT film festivals

In Canada, LGBTQ people have come extraordinarily far in three decades, from extensive anti-discrimination laws to essential equality when it comes to marriage and adoption. We also have access to LGBTQ-themed film and television across platforms that would have seemed extremely futuristic in 1989, with pretty much anything available via a few clicks on our computers. Which begs the question as to whether the film festivals created out of such urgency at their origins still matter to the relatively quite privileged people they represent today. While the reasoning behind it may be different, the answer is still a resounding "yes."

Canada's largest LGBT film festival turns 26 this week, and it definitely still matters


Next month, San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival turns the ripe old age of 40. That makes it the longest running LGBTQ film festival, and a grandmother to over 100 similar events around the world, most of which have also been around for a few decades. Canada's three primary examples are also aging — Montreal's Image+Nation will be 29 this year, Vancouver's Queer Film Festival will celebrate 28 come August, and Toronto's Inside Out — the country's largest LGBTQ film festival — is turning 26 this Thursday. But what do these festivals represent in the wake of all the progress that has been made since they began?

The three noted Canadian film fests were products of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when LGBTQ people were coming together to fight for the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS — a disease that governments in Canada and other nations were tragically ineffective at fighting. LGBT film festivals (or gay and lesbian film festivals, which they were pretty much exclusively considered at the time) were born out of necessity, meeting a need for safe and concentrated spaces to share work whose existence countered the rampant discrimination being faced on every corner.

Cut to 2016. In Canada, LGBTQ people have come very far in three decades, winning recognition of our legal rights from marriage and adoption to freedom from discrimination. We have access to LGBTQ-themed film and television in ways we could never have imagined in 1989, with pretty much anything available via a few clicks on our computers. Which begs the question, do film festivals created out of such urgency at their origins still matter to the relatively privileged people they represent today?

"North Mountain"

"In spite of the increasing number of outlets for LGBTQ people to access content, LGBTQ-identified people, their allies, and film fans in general continue to come to Inside Out year after year to see films with their community," said Andrew Murphy, Inside Out's Director of Programming. 

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In his view, it's the social aspect of the festival that helps it remain vital.

"Inside Out offers a different kind of pride celebration where they can come together, watch their stories on screen, interact with the filmmakers and stars, do business, and maybe even get down to business if all goes well after a heated Q&A."

Murphy cites the example of a film the festival showed in 2014, the documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, which documented the life and tragic murder of gay university student Shepard. His parents Dennis and Judy Shepard had been in attendance for the Q&A alongside the film's director Michele Josue. 

"There wasn't a dry eye in the house when the credits rolled, and it's perhaps only the second time in my festival career that no one left the theatre before the Q&A," Murphy said. "It was a moving, inspiring discussion with Dennis, Judy, Michele as well as producer Liam McNiff, that didn't just reflect on a life gone too soon, rather one that inspired action, and above all things, love."

But while stories like this clearly show why these festivals matter, it also goes well beyond that. Inside Out, and all the festivals that share its mission, provide LGBTQ filmmakers with a tangible community. That can be very important given how lonesome the life of a filmmaker can be, especially if they are primarily creating work for specific audiences, a focus that may limit a film's commercial potential. LGBTQ film festivals can provide necessary inspiration to keep artists going, and to keep creating content that has potential to change the lives of its viewers.

"Spa Night" (Inside Out)

Despite the incredible advancements for LGBTQ people in society as a whole, it's not as though your local cinema has extensive options for LGBTQ audiences eager to see themselves on screen. On the contrary, the only film with a lead character who identified as LGBTQ to receive a wide release in the last decade was, of all things, Sacha Baron Cohen's problematic mockumentary Bruno. LGBTQ film festivals matter because they bring to audiences across the country the films that would otherwise be pushed out of the multiplex by $200-million superhero sequels.

More importantly, though, these festivals encourage links rather than divisions between the communities represented under the increasingly divisive LGBTQ umbrella (or LGBTQQIP2SAA if we're really getting inclusive). Inside Out, for example, has a wide range of programming representing the dozens of different identities —whose degree of privilege in our society varies greatly — that are often lumped together elsewhere under various acronyms.

"With such a large community in the Greater Toronto area, it can sometimes be divisive amongst its own," Murphy said. "We strive to be that place where all pockets [of queerness] can come out and celebrate diversity while at the same time educate and inspire a new generation with its rich history and identity."

While the specifics behind such a mandate might be very different from the late 1980s and early 1990s, at its core LGBTQ film festivals still matter for the same reason they always have: They bring people together to celebrate diversity through art.

Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. May 26-June 5. Various locations. Toronto.