Positive Images of Gays & Lesbians

By Austin-Smith, Brenda | Canadian Dimension, July-August 1991 | Go to article overview

Positive Images of Gays & Lesbians


Austin-Smith, Brenda, Canadian Dimension


Three things made Winnipeg's fourth Counterparts Film Festival especially poignant: the Names Project Quilt was here briefly in the summer of 1989; Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt won an Oscar later that year; and Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet and one of the subjects of Common Threads, spoke at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) as part of Counterparts III.

It was Russo's book which provided the inspiration for the formation of a lesbian and gay film festival in this city, and it was fitting that this year's offerings, which included the documentary "Common Threads," were dedicated to his memory.

In his lecture at the WAG last year, Russo traced the history of lesbians and gays in film--particularly in Hollywood film. Not surprisingly, stereotypes of the limp-wristed queen or the bristly dyke usually served as convenient laughingstocks for filmmakers and their audiences. Or, in films such as Looking for Mister Goodbar, homosexuality accounted for the murderer's self-loathing and consequent violence (directed at a woman of course--there's nothing quite like divide and conquer politics). In the midst of this representational desert, images like that of Marlene Dietrich in her androgynous white tuxedo in Morocco are a relief. But when, Russo asked, would we begin to see films in which sexual orientation was not the only drama onscreen?

This question must nag the organizers as they choose films for screening. How can a one week-long film festival best gainsay the misrepresentations of the other fifty-one weeks without being merely reactive? In such a limited period of time, what images can account most fully for the complexities and joys of gay and lesbian life? These questions are potentially paralyzing for any group of people hoping to both charm and educate their audience. Given the scope of the task, Counterparts does an excellent job.

The primary mandate of the festival's organizers is to provide Winnipegers with positive film images of lesbians and gays. Since Hollywood film has historically been inhospitable to homosexuals, this usually involves reaching outside the industry mainstream to independent filmmakers, whose work is not as likely to be ruled by studio-financed homophobia. This has the interesting side-effect of introducing Counterparts viewers to a fairly large number of experimental or avantgarde films, such as Silence=Death and Positive by German filmmaker Rosa von Prauheim. Organizers are aware, however, that a steady diet of grainy images and jump-cuts can put an audience off--after all, a film festival exists to entertain as well as educate its spectators. …

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