The history of “Forbidden Love,” the world’s best documentary about early lesbian lives

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Having watched a lot of documentaries, 1992’s Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives still stands as one of the best (if not the best) feature-length documentaries about lesbians that I’ve ever seen. That’s why I was thrilled when it was re-released last year, and why I’m equally excited now that the movie is part of the Queer Film Classics book series. Written by Jean Bruce and Gerda Cammaer, associate professors in the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University in Toronto, Forbidden Love the book provides incredible insight into co-directors Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s groundbreaking documentary.

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We caught up with Jean and Gerda ahead of their book’s launch next week. During our lengthy chat, we talked about the movie’s status as a queer film classic, the research material it unearthed, the “the burden of representation,” and more.

AfterEllen.com: Why, by today’s standards, should we consider Forbidden Love a queer film classic?

Jean Bruce: It is a queer film classic for a number of reasons. Primarily because it is a film that was using unique, New Queer Cinema strategies that had been developed or were being developed prior to that and in that period. So it’s not just a film about a bunch of lesbians in Canada, and it’s not just a film about pulp fiction. It’s a film that uses interesting strategies, maybe you’d even call them post-modern strategies, to create a new kind of story that fits in with what Ruby Rich identified as New Queer Cinema, which is kind of edgy, low-budget–although this wasn’t exactly low-budget–kinds of filmmaking that weren’t just about telling stories about gays and lesbians and queers.

Gerda Cammaer: Why I would call it a queer film classic is because the film is a historical documentary. It’s telling about the history of these people’s lives. It actually talks a lot about the past, of what was happening in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. But then the way it is made and the stories these people tell are still valid today.

 

AE: Do you think we hold a certain nostalgia for these movies that came out in the early ‘90s and tackled these themes in a new way?

JB: Nostalgia doesn’t seem to me to be the right way of thinking about that, but maybe that’s because I’m much older and when I saw the film I–yeah, it doesn’t seem nostalgic to me at all. The film itself, or I don’t have a nostalgia for that period either. I think at the time I thought it was really exciting that this film was being made, and the style of the film, and it was just so cheeky and fun and also very serious. I thought the way that they were able to combine these different tones in the film was really, to me, was a breath of fresh air, and it was very different from the other films that I’d seen at queer film festivals, or even at TIFF at the time, that were just really quite, I found, really boring love stories or coming out stories that, while they have their place and certainly are valid, they weren’t doing anything unique aesthetically or trying to do something new and interesting in the way in which they told the story. That’s for me what I would say is the strength of this film: is the fact that it’s not a nostalgic film.

The Continental House, Toronto, ca. 1971.FL_Fig03_B&WStill from “Forbidden Love.” Credit: City of Toronto Archives, E.R. White Collection No. 41-4. © National Film Board of Canada. 

AE: Would you say that this movie belongs in LGBT archives? A statement in your book goes as follows: “Weissman and Fernie provide important cultural documentation and social context for understanding what the cultural and social life for Canadian lesbians was like in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s.” That certainly suggests to me that this film has a place in our archives because a lot of the material presented in it we didn’t have access to before, and the film still lives on today as a testament to our history.

JB: Yes, we both agree about that. It is an archival document in itself. The great thing about it is it does place lesbians in Canada and, in a larger cultural context, beyond Canada as well. But it does place them in history. It doesn’t place them sort of as a kind of exception to history. It places them right in the midst of mainstream, official history.

GC: The filmmakers put a lot, a lot, a lot of work in the research for this film. And they had a hard time finding material. There was not a lot of footage out there that they were able to use to put in their film to illustrate certain themes. The archival research that they did in itself is actually an enormous contribution to queer history.

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