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Queer City Cinema – A Little History | Essay by Gary Varro

I had moved back to Regina in the early nineties – having lived away for ten years going to architecture school in Winnipeg, the National Theatre School in Montreal and the Banff School of Fine Arts, with some time spent living in Calgary. I never thought I would return to Regina, but at some point, about three or four years having been back – and I think in order to make things interesting for myself, and my queer self – I needed to do something that was about being queer, perhaps about being queer in a smaller city like Regina, and with so little to offer the gay and lesbian community in the way of culture and the arts, and well fun, I thought perhaps something was needed and I might try and do something about it.

I was working at the Dunlop art gallery at the time, as a gallery facilitator, perhaps called something different these days. Our job was to assist and survey (and annoy) the public in the gallery. I was also working as the Dunlop’s interim assistant curator at the time, with Ingrid Jenkner as the curator and Helen Marzolf the director, both being around when Debbie Piapot curated a film series entitled ‘Story of Our Lives: How Hollywood Won the West’ which was a survey of the (mostly negative) way in which First Nations characters were portrayed in mainstream Hollywood films. Through discussions about identity and misrepresentation, Ingrid and I thought that I should do a similar series for the Dunlop around the way in which lesbians and gays had and had not been portrayed in mainstream Hollywood films. In the end, what ended up happening was that I applied through the Dunlop for a research grant to travel to lesbian and gay film festivals, do lots of research and figure out how to put together a film series around the subject of lesbian and gay – whatever that was to be. What resulted was a lesbian and gay film and video film series exhibited as part of the Dunlop’s programming year at the Regina public library film theatre in 1996 entitled ‘queer city cinema – coming out to a theatre near you’. The series was a total of eight days over a month and broke attendance records for any film series at the Dunlop. So a huge success.

By introducing new or different forms of cultural expression, especially in a place like Regina, I knew it would elicit curiosity, anticipation and, in some cases, apprehension. It was important from the outset of Queer City Cinema to determine what queer representations should be considered: which audiences and/or community would be addressed, and in what context? Who would come from the ‘community’ of LGBTQ? Who from the non-queer communities? One obvious option was to satisfy general curiosity by curating a ‘Lesbian and Gay 101’ selection of films and videos about living queer in a straight world – our struggle, overcoming oppression and battling homophobia, coming out, activism and affirmation – taking an educational, didactic and informative approach. As useful and important as this approach can be, it tends to exclude many artistic, creative and alternative works. But more importantly, such an approach unintentionally reinforces a heteropatriarchal framework – here’s how we survive in your world. LGBTQ folk desire understanding from dominant culture, but it is not (and should not be) our preoccupation.

Queer City Cinema’s approach – and consequent mandate – was less about generalizing and proselytizing and became more about presenting the diversity (cultural and formal), which exists within queer culture. Queers participate in a minority in which many other minorities exist (a community of communities) and our differences are perhaps as great as our similarities or common bonds.

Queer City Cinema has always made the case for identities which are fluid, multiple, contradictory shifting and inconsistent. If one can think if identity as a constantly changing condition, then perhaps, at the same time, one might feel unencumbered to talk about queer identifications and the complexity and variety of different subjectivities.

Queer City Cinema has given Regina audiences the chance to see how issues of identity, specifically queer identity, are being questioned, challenged, and (re) constructed. It has always been the hope that by creating a forum where one assumes the familiar role of spectator, that a new and active discourse will emerge around issues of queer identities and queer culture(s) in Regina.

I have been aware of and interested in performance art, live art, etc. since my time at The Banff Centre in the late 80’s. I have also performed several times in performance artworks over the years and recently have made my own. Along the way, I have had the pleasure of attending the more innovative and daring queer film festivals (MIX NYC for example) and often would see visual art installations and performance art as part of the programming, so that was inspiring and made me think that performance and visual art could be part of what was happening at Queer City Cinema. I programmed visual art exhibits for the festival as well, and in fact, the first foray into performance occurred in 2002, with a cabaret evening called Transformance showcasing a number of transgender artists. Consequently, since 2012, in addition to Queer City Cinema Film Festival, another festival was initiated – Performatorium Festival of Queer Performance. This was done for a few reasons – to make my job more interesting, provide a new and exciting art form from which to present queer artists, and increase the organization’s presence by having two festivals occur every year.

Additionally, performance, specifically performance art, is another way to convey ideas and artistic expression informed by queer identity and has provided some interesting texture to programming, having had many exceptional and memorable performances by artists such as Ron Athey, Cassils, Zackary Drucker, Kira O’Reilly, Adrian Stimson, Julie Tolentino, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan, to name a few.

Since 2016, the two festivals have been combined into one three-day festival of film and performance art.

Intersection of Queer City Cinema and Art Practice
Until recently, I have always viewed my art practice as only including the visual artwork and more recently, the performance artwork that I make and exhibit. I currently also consider my role within Queer City Cinema and Performatorium as being part of my art practice. Even though Queer City Cinema is technically a non-profit organization (it has to be in order to access funding) I initiated the organization and continue to be the sole organizer, curator, programmer, and, not unlike being an artist, I absorb the world around me and channel my own ideas and identities in order to inform/curate the film and performance art programming that is presented to the public. I had been reluctant to claim this position at QCC as part of my art practice, as it is my ‘job’ and what employs me, but because I work alone, that it is so personal to me and that I invest a great degree of thought and care into all that happens as part of Queer City Cinema (22 years and counting), I felt that I should consider it as a legitimate part of what I do as an artist.

Taking something that myself and others might not consider (or even feel is allowed) as a form of personal creative expression and claiming it as such, is also kind of a queer thing to do.

Consequently, a seismic mix of feelings – deviation, conflict, validation, disruption, freedom – has resulted in making this claim, but in the end, it has helped to fuse what I do at QCC and what I do as a visual and performance artist, making the entire experience more unified, homogeneous, intimate and meaningful.

This intersection of roles – Executive and Artistic Director of a non-profit and Visual Artist – is also about survival as an artist, both financially and artistically. The work that employs me also provides research for the artwork that I conceive of, make and exhibit and further informs future programming at QCC. This reflexive, symbiotic relationship seems to nurture and self-pollinate ideas for both my queer art programming and my own artworks.