TIFF Documentary Programming Makes Space for Joyful Queer Storytelling

13 September 2023 / by Quinton Bradshaw
TIFF Documentary Programming Makes Space for Joyful Queer Storytelling
I found (queer) love in a hopeful place: TIFF 2023’s documentary programming!

It’s tough out here for us queers in 2023. Anti-trans sentiments and legislation are picking up steam on both sides of the border. School boards are outing queer kids to their parents. I could go on, but you know what? I don’t want to. It’s depressing! And I think you get the picture. 


When I get down about these things, it can be nice to watch something that’s joyfully queer, as a reminder that for all of the external challenges, queerness is something I feel so privileged to experience. At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I found that feeling in a place that surprised me: the documentary programme. 


I’ve watched a lot of sad gay docs over the years. Often, they’re important sad gay docs. While there’s certainly a place for that, it doesn’t really feed the soul, you know? There’s also a certain subset of queer docs directed by straight directors who don’t handle the communities they’re profiling with appropriate care. However, I’m not here to talk about those. I’m here to talk about two TIFF documentaries directed with such care by queer and trans directors, that show the joy, pain, and power of the queer experience through two distinct lenses. 


The first of these docs is Summer Qamp, directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Jen Markowitz. They spent five days last summer at Camp fYrefly, an Alberta summer camp specifically for LGBTQ+ youth, and many more months before and after camp filming conversations with the campers. The resulting documentary is an intimate look at the lives of these campers, and the transformative effect of a week spent in a place where they feel totally free to be themselves. 


The kids in Summer Qamp have been through some pretty tough stuff. In conversations with Marokowitz, delivered straight to camera, and through moments captured at camp, they talk about some pretty painful experiences. Markowitz takes care not to make these conversations the focal point – rather, they’re necessary pieces of context so we can understand why time at camp means so much to the campers. These conversations are offset by so much fun. We see DIY makeovers in the woods, gender-affirming clothing swaps, and a talent show where a quiet camper transforms into the camp heartthrob over the course of one killer saxophone solo. 


Watching this film, I was so struck by how well these campers, all under the age of 18, know themselves and what they want. They’re still figuring themselves out – they’re teenagers, so obviously! – but they’re so thoughtful and insightful, and much further evolved on topics of gender and sexuality than most people twice their age. They seem hopeful about their future, dreaming of success and independence, and having an apartment in the city to call their own. In a time when it feels like everyone is talking about queer youth, Summer Qamp gives them the mic and lets them tell you that actually, thank you very much? If we just let them do their thing, they’ll be just fine. What a delight it is to hear that. 


For more on Summer Qamp, you can listen to my interview with Jen Markowitz here: 


The second queer TIFF doc you should know about is Orlando, My Political Biography, from French theorist, critic, curator, and now filmmaker Paul B. Preciado. This is a loose, playful film that toes the line between documentary, fiction, and experimental theatre production. 


In speaking about the film, Paul B. Preciado says he created this as a response to various peers suggesting he write a biography. In fact, he remarked that Vigina Woolf had beaten him to the punch with her 1928 novel, Orlando: A Biography; a story that spans 400 years as it follows its shape-shifting protagonist, Orlando, who changes genders halfway through the novel. In his film, Preciado tells the story of his own transition through the lens of Orlando’s story, and invites over twenty trans and non-binary performers to join him to do the same through staged vignettes and on-camera chats. If it’s a biography, it’s an incredibly generous one. 


I do feel I should note that I haven’t read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, so I can’t totally speak to the faithfulness of Preciado’s interpretation. A friend  told me that the film takes certain liberties, but I was still surprised and pleased by how well the two seem to telegraph, as they use the book as a jumping off point to explore pieces of the trans experience. The film touches on everything from the depression and dysphoria that many trans folks feel, to the challenges of navigating legal and government systems as a trans person. The lines are further blurred when the performers – all of whom introduce themselves as playing “Orlando” in this piece – shift mid-sentence from telling their own stories to telling the fictitious Orlando’s. For example, to cure one’s depression, they were recommended more rest, or perhaps to consume the gall of a salamander.


Towards the end, the gambit begins to drag a bit. Some of the more factual information that’s mixed in with the personal stories might feel a little trans 101 for trans viewers, or viewers who engage with lots of trans media, bogging down meaningful personal stories. Jokes that were fresh the first few times feel played out, and the parade of Orlandos feels never-ending. As new performers appear and recount variations on similar experiences to prior Orlandos, we begin to feel like maybe we’ve heard this one before. A slightly shortened run time might have allowed the film to close with the most impactful vignettes looming large in viewers’ memories; as is, they’re occasionally drowned out by the chorus of Orlandos. 


I hope these stories do stay with viewers, though. The thing that’s truly groundbreaking about Orlando, My Political Biography is the way it turns the spotlight onto trans and non-binary performers, and gives them space to be silly, honest, vulnerable, and deeply themselves. I feel lucky to have been invited to witness it.