From the centre of an iris on a hot pink face—the logo of Vancouver Queer Film Festival invites one pupil to gaze into another.
“See for yourself” is the theme for the festival’s 31st year, empowering individuals to choose their own adventure during the collective cinematic experience from August 15-25.
With over 100 films from 27 countries, the theme also challenges audiences to discover new narratives, previously silenced until mainstream culture started embracing and demanding more queer content.
The growing interest in queer stories has recently come with negative side effects, according to VQFF’s Artistic Director Anoushka Ratnarajah.
“We’ll pursue films and then find out it’s going to be on Netflix,” says Ratnarajah. ”Why would people come to a film festival when they can spend zero dollars to sit and watch something at home?”
Besides offering local, national and international queer film premiers, she reckons that people come out for the community aspect of western Canada’s second largest film festival.
“The emotions you feel when you’re watching a film get amplified when you’re watching it with people who may have similar emotional experience.”
Now in her third year in this role, Ratnarajah saw more serious, dark submissions his year—reflecting the state of the world politically and environmentally.
“But dark humour is often used in these films as a way to cope or analyze the situation,” she explains. “Humour is an interesting way to poke holes in homophobia or transphobia, taking down those violences that we can face with a joke, and I think that that’s really important.”
“As a settler organization on unceded Coast Salish lands, it’s really important to contextualize and uplift two-spirit, Indigenous folks,” says Ratnarajah. “They have lots to teach us and share, yet have been historically denied the opportunity to do so through film.”
The festival’s programmer, Justin Ducharme, is a queer Metis multidisciplinary artist who’s curated a shorts program called all our relations: an exploration of indigiqueer friendship.
“It It looks at both human and non-human relations and celebrates the nuance and the importance of these figures in our lives,” says Ducharme. The screening will also serve as the launch for Whess Harman’s ‘zine Together Apart, which centres around queer indignities in current times.
While Ducharme says VQFF is still very much a film festival at it’s heart and core, the organizers also want to showcase the ways in which multi-disciplinary artists have adapted the medium.
“I'm really excited about an evening of queer indigenous performance with Anthony Hudson and Beric Manywounds, Ducharme says, likening the show to a spiritual experience.
“Anoushka and I have bonded over our mutual love and obsession with theatrics, so seeing these two works that are incorporating film, performance, song and dance all together are a huge win for us.”
Ducharme had the opportunity to collaborate with Sayisi Dene artist Zachary Longboy on running, running trees go by, a free exhibition the SUM Gallery will host August 20-25.
“Zachary’s pop-up exhbit is a perfect example of the ways in which artists can evolve and still keep their interests and values at the core of their work,” explains Ducharme. “Over the years his practice has shifted from film, to drawing and painting, and then animating those drawings and paintings.”
Longboy has been an artist in Vancouver since the 90s and, while Ducharme says he’s a huge pillar in the queer indigenous community, Longboy has never had a solo retrospective like this before.
“Part of my whole ethos and obsession with curating for this festival…It feels like a gift to my community and queer indigenous kin in the city,” says Ducharme, who grew up in rural Manitoba and saw few positive representations of queer indigenous folks.
“If people know that these artists exist and are making it work, it will have big effect on how they view and navigate themselves in the world,” says Ducharme. “I don’t think people realize how important representation is until they find themselves accurately represented on screen.”
As a queer South Asian person, Ratnarajah can relate to the desire for authentic representation through art.
“Representation isn’t just about putting diversity hired actors on screen, but about who is telling those stories,” says Ratnarajah. “You can really see the difference between films made my folks who have the lived experience behind screen.”
Mentorship can help queer and trans youth find their stories on screen, which is why VQFF has partnered with Reel Youth for the Troublemakers Film Program. Now in it’s fourth year, the project provides 10 queer and trans youth the opportunity to make a documentary about elders from their community that they’re paired with.
“Queer and trans youth are deeply affected by homo and trans phobia and have very high suicide and homelessness rates,” explains Ratnarajah. “This program tells them ‘you know what? You can have this opportunity to be a grownup—to be alive, happy, successful and have meaningful relationships.”
Fostering intergenerational, interracial relationships between queer folks who wouldn’t normally connect in Vancouver is a goal for both organizers.
“We want to create opportunities for us to care about each other more,” says Ratnarajah, adding that this is especially important with a federal election on the horizon. “When we take risks and challenge ourselves in the art we consume, the reward can be something really special.”
Choosing what risks to take can be overwhelming, especially with the high cost of space forcing the festival to spread out between five different locations: International Village, SFU Goldcorp Centre, York Theatre, VIFF Vancity Theatre and the Vancouver Playhouse.
“I would maybe pick three things that I desperately want to see and then two things that I wouldn't normally watch and then go for there,” says Ducharme. Because all of the workshops are free, he adds that people should attend any that peak even a slight interest.
“Come and learn something new and meet new people, and literally see for yourselves how these stories make you feel and bask in this brilliance.”