Queer Film Classics, a subsidiary of Canadian publishing house Arsenal Pulp Press, released Forbidden Love in 2015. Written by Jean Bruce and Greta Cammaer, the book focuses on Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, a 1992 documentary released by the National Film Board of Canada. Blending narrative elements with interviews and archival footage, directors Aerlyn Weissman and Lynne Fernie sought to unravel a forgotten history of lesbian life before the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Looking at the experience of lesbians across Canada from the 1940s to the 1960s, the film employs and subverts the compilation documentary which often takes for granted the veracity of the quoted archival footage.
Canada has a long documentary history with the National Film Board, perhaps one of the richest legacies in the world. The wealth of documentary culture in Canadian cinema has challenged the face of cinema, aesthetically and politically. Each decade of the National Film Board’s history sees a challenge borne out of opportunity to push the genre forward. By the 1990s, when Forbidden Love was released, both aesthetics and politics meet. A simple collage film would not suffice since the veracity of what little news footage existed could not be taken at face value. Since homosexuality was outlawed until the 1970s in Canada, the tone of any news stories before that period victimize and criminalize any topics of lesbianism. The pulp novels that the filmmakers decided to integrate through a fictionalized narrative became emblematic of a negotiated identity.
Working with a number of competing narratives that sometimes seem at odds with each other, the filmmakers and the critics reveal the inferiority of research when it comes to tackling underrepresented narratives. Ahead of their time, the Forbidden Love filmmakers utilize fictional tropes in order to unveil the engagement of negotiation that lesbians experienced with the pulp novels they read, representing (for most) the only exposure to lesbians in popular culture. In these novels, stereotypes are rife and most stories end tragically. While not all the subjects attached themselves to these representations (some were disgusted by them), these flawed images came to be the only confirmation of feelings for some, yearnings and experiences that they felt in popular culture.
The filmmakers were tasked not only to tell a story about a particular time and place, but they were also incredibly conscious of the ramifications of making a documentary about lesbians in a representational wasteland. Details such as “lesbian” in the title and interviews with participants from different backgrounds and geographic conditions were conscious choices to make the culturally invisible become visible. These kinds of choices, which might remain only behind the scenes were it not for Queer Film Classics series, often reach beyond how most critics engage with documentary. Such films have their own conditions, audiences and mandates that perhaps do not align with expectations of a singular truth.
The analysis of Forbidden Love raises many questions that critics can carry over to most of their writing about documentary and representation. As the film itself handles the nuance of appropriating art and cultural relics that may actually present incomplete or even damaging representations to lesbians, it similarly reveals why blanketed statements about “bad” or “problematic” art maligns the more complicated relationship most of us have with the culture we consume. While the impulse to condemn elements of pop culture for presenting difficult or even offensive representations can be strong, sometimes this rejection works against underrepresented or negotiated identities. Similarly, it refutes the possibility that a particularly egregious representation can hold an inkling of “truth” as a reflection of dominant cultural narratives. The subversion of homosexual fears in tabloids, as one example suggests within the film, present two competing versions of reality: the documented “truth” of a homophobic dominant culture and contradictory reality of the lesbian experience.
In recent years, filmmakers like Robert Greene have embraced a hybrid style to expose the failures of first person documents to paint the full picture, and Forbidden Love stands out as an early example of the style. As documentary filmmaking takes on an even wider audience, a greater engagement with the truth of first-person documents (and the image itself) needs to come under more scrutiny.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.