- Choosing the Ghetto
I attended my first queer film festival in Montreal in 1988 and began exhibiting work in that same festival (Image et Nation) two years later. Since then, I have produced and directed thirty-two short films and videos and enjoyed hundreds of screenings around the globe. In 1992 I had the bizarre experience of being the first person to come out on a network Canadian TV series, years before Ellen did the deed on U.S. network TV. For twenty-six weeks, I directed and appeared in weekly segments of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Road Movies, later rebroadcast on Pride TV. [End Page 130]
Road Movies was both thrilling and crazy-making. At the wrap party, one of the key creative people, a close mentor, began chastising me for focusing on so many gay stories (three out of forty-seven segments I shot had gay themes). My career would go nowhere if I continued to choose the ghetto. Not surprisingly, he later confided in a drunken stupor, that he had consciously chosen not to be gay.
Road Movies brought me in touch with an audience of over fifteen million, but having constantly to butt heads with homophobic producers burned me out. My writing and directing career hasn't been driven by a thirst for fame and fortune perhaps because of this brush with the heterosexist cinematic-industrial-complex at such a young age. Instead, I have typically used my low-budget DIY productions to get in the zone creatively. Queer festivals play a huge part in my practice as both a consumer and producer of queer cultural work. For the first decade of my filmmaking life, the queer festival circuit informed my creative practice—it was what I lived for, and, alienated by the harsh straight world, I made it my lifeline. Moreover, curating and running festivals was an inevitable crossover for me.
As a somewhat downwardly mobile director, I haven't knocked myself out to make it big and therefore have all but abandoned the big straight festivals. In the last five years, their entrance fees have increased, and their content has become more mainstream. Because I'm not a twenty-four-year-old white straight guy, I decided to keep focusing on an audience that I know appreciates my work. After I tried (and failed) to break into the straight festival scene with my one dreaded "calling card film," I was surprised when an entirely different short I made for about forty dollars screened at over sixty queer festivals worldwide. It was like coming out again. Proof for me that there is still a large, hungry, and curious audience that isn't entirely satisfied with Queer as Folk and The L Word. The success I experienced with this tape, You Fake (2003), reminded me why I chose to make film and video in the first place, to connect with an audience and to redefine my idea of success.
On a purely pragmatic level, the difference between queer and mainstream "straight" festivals is that queer festivals pay artist fees and straight festivals charge artists to screen their work. Over the years I've felt a sense of pride in seeing queer festivals consistently pay artists. Mainstream festivals contend that they need these resources to promote the work (and throw lavish parties), and we should just shut up and be grateful for our festival pass. Over the past decade, the Canada Council for the Arts has pressed the festivals it funds to pay artist fees to Canadian media artists, and so has our Independent Media Arts Alliance of Canada. Typically, the fee isn't much, but the gesture is one that sits well with my old-school feminist lefty roots. Most artists are only too happy to waive or [End Page 131] reduce artists' fees if it means exposure, but at least this nominal-pay-for-equal-work strategy underlines the hypocrisy in straight festivals hoarding all the booty. Queer festivals, in part, also help keep small distributors like Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC [Toronto]) afloat, yet another testament to the power of the almighty queer dollar.
Two of my shorts screened at...