Award-winning lesbian documentary “Forbidden Love” available for the first time in 20 years

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In 1993, filmmakers Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman premiered Forbidden Love at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco. The documentary followed the secret lives of lesbians in the pre-Stonewall era, featuring interviews, photographs and video clips from those who were looking for one another at a time when they had little rights as women, much less gay women.

Focusing largely on Canada, Forbidden Love tells the stories of the bars that allowed women to wear slacks and dance with one another and has pulp novelist Ann Bannon discussing her famous books like Beebo Brinker and Odd Girl Out. The GLAAD Award-winning film has just now been made available in a re-mastered format for its 20th anniversary after being unavailable for the last decade.

We spoke with Lynne Fernie about the re-release and continued importance of lesbian history.

AfterEllen.com: Why has Forbidden Love been unavailable for so long and how did you go about getting it remastered for re-release?

Lynne Fernie: The rights for archival film footage, photographs and music expired at the same time that the producer–the National Film Board of Canada–had its funding cut. So although the NFB wanted the film back in circulation, dollars were scarce. They were also worried that the ’50s pop songs by Connie Francis, The Shirelles and The Fleetwoods would cost a fortune to renew today.

Getting it legal again got a kick in the pants when author and film critic Ruby Rich was in Toronto launching her fabulous New Queer Cinema book at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT Festival in 2013. I gave Ruby an “illegal” DVD so she could use scenes in her presentation and she lamented on stage that the film was out of circulation. Luckily, in the audience were gay film pioneer and professor Tom Waugh and Helga Stephenson–the woman who ran the Toronto International Film Festival for years and is now head of the Canadian Academy of Film and. Over drinks later, the three decided that something must be done!

They contacted the NFB about the importance of the film to Canadian and queer cinema and communities. Because the NFB really did want the film back in circulation, and the timing was right–Toronto was hosting World Pride in 2014–they dedicated the resources.

Exactly one year later at Inside Out, the re-mastered film screened to a full cinema of both new young viewers and old-timers. The energy was fabulous. I think there was even more laughter and applause for the women in the film than when we premiered it in 1992. It many ways it is more poignant and relevant today as many of the women in the film have passed on and their presence in the film is their legacy. So big kudos go to Ruby, Tom, Helga and the NFB–we couldn’t have had better advocates.

And BTW, the woman doing the clearances negotiated a fantastic deal for the songs and so all the original pop tunes are intact. We thought we might have to record a “sound alike.”

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AE: At the beginning of the film, there’s a message letting viewers know that not everyone included in the documentary is gay. Was this under the condition of some participants? Why was it included?

LF: Some of the companies who owned the archival materials were afraid of litigation and in order to use shots from the ’40s and ’50s, we had to put a disclaimer on screen. So in spirit of the women in the film who used humor to deal with homophobia, my co-director Aerlyn Weissman and I decided to fade in the reverse disclaimer right after the “required” one: that viewers shouldn’t assume that everyone is heterosexual either! In an unexpected way, the laugh that usually accompanies the second line when it appears sets the stage for our approach to the film. It respects the savvy of viewers: we know and you know that this qualifier is the result of homophobia, but instead of letting it pass, lets flip it around, make a point of it and make the reverse also true.

AE: Looking back on the film now, how do you think it has made an impact on those participated or have seen it?

LF: I think it delighted, empowered, and informed lesbians and people in the LGBTQ communities as well as the general public as the film screened in both LGBT and international festivals. The women in the film are so smart and funny that even homophobic heteros who saw the film wanted to have a beer and swap stories with them. I heard that women in Durban, South Africa took over the men-only bars for the night after the screening!

It world premiered at TIFF in 1992, was the first lesbian feature film to open Frameline, the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 1993, won the GLAAD award for Outstanding Documentary, Canada’s Academy award for Best Doc, among others. I recently found out it screened at 50+ festivals around the world, and was broadcast in at least 15 countries besides Canada, England and the U.S.– everywhere from Japan, to the Slovakk Republic to Nicaragua. So we hope it contributed widely to changing prejudices about lesbians.

I don’t think any single work makes a change on its own, but as a part of feminist and LGBT equal rights zeitgeist, and the unruly and sexy body of work being created by queer filmmakers in the ’80s and ’90s, I hope it contributed to lesbian pride and troublemaking!

AE: What can we take away from the film in 2014, especially those who might have not seen it before now?

LF: The incredible spirit and courage of the women who came before them: women who risked police harassment and social harassment to find love and a space to meet each other at a time when a site like AfterEllen was beyond imagining. And how they used humour, wit and street smarts as resistance to keep themselves strong.

We hope that new viewers enjoy the cheeky love story between Laura and Mitch in the melodrama woven into the documentary. Based on typical scenes in lesbian pulp novels, we tried to include the lesbian imaginary and fantasies as well as reality. One critic said that we were “sexing history” in the film, and I new viewers will find that still true.

Jeanne, one of the women in the film, told us she only agreed to be filmed because she wanted young lesbians to know what it was like to be a lesbian in the ’40s and ’50s. Because there were so few bars, all ages would end up at the same place so histories would be passed on in person over a beer. By the ’80s and ’90s, bars/dance clubs were pretty much segregated by age, so the spaces where generations might meet socially have disappeared.

AE: Was there anything you wanted to include in the film that you weren’t able to?

LF: Oh, about two hours worth of stories! Our fav cut was about three and a half hours! A gay sailor teaching two women the erotic’s of toe sucking in Victoria, B.C. and the queer Commie plumber in the Rocky Mountains, to name just two.

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AE: How has life for lesbian citizens in Canada changed since Forbidden Love first came out?

LF: The legal changes have been profound. Canada has moved from treating lesbians and gays as criminals and perverts to enshrining equal rights in law: marriage and adoption of children are legal, all discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is mostly prohibited although there are exceptions and skirmishes between “religious freedoms” and human rights of LGBT people in some provinces. But the majority of Canadians now support equal rights.

And the social changes have been amazing. Lesbians in larger cities are open about their lives and loves, living and working not only in gay enclaves but also throughout the city and suburbs. However, it’s still difficult for many to be open or out in smaller towns or suburbs, and in schools–particularly religious schools–there’s still a lot of discrimination and a lot of work to be done.

AE: Is there anything else you want people to know about Forbidden Love?

LF: There’s a book being published on the film expected out in 2015–so people should keep an eye out for that next year. It’s one of a film book series called Queer Film Classics about films from drama to doc to experimental. Cinephiles and queer studies folks who like to know everything about their favourite films should check these books out.

Forbidden Love is now available for rent or purchase from Wolfe.

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