Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman
1992 (July 26, 2022)
Canadian International Photos/Vinegar Syndrome
- Film/program category: B+
- Video Note: B-
- Audio quality: B
- Additional Rank: A-
Forbidden Love: Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives is a 1992 documentary about the experiences of Canadian women who had to navigate their personal orientation during the sexual repression of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The style of the film was inspired by lesbian pulp novels of the time, which offered readers a steamy glimpse into illicit sexuality, but generally punished the female characters by the end. Directors Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman created a dramatized story that brought these novels to life, then used it as a framing device to surround the interviews they had filmed with various women who had truly lived through this period. The framing story shows the fantasy, while the interviews prove the reality.
The biggest issue for these women was finding a safe space that would give them a sense of community. How dangerous it was to be open about your own sexuality, some of them weren’t even sure what reality really was. (One says that because the books were frequently set in Greenwich Village, she and her partner packed up and drove to New York to “look for the lesbians.”) In the end, most of them have found refuge in the gay-friendly district. bars of the time, although it was not without its risks. There have been raids, arrests and other forms of harassment, even racial issues, as a few women attest. Yet despite all the challenges just trying to live their own lives, they found strength in themselves, and also with each other.
Fernie and Weissman conducted numerous interviews, but they were all ultimately narrowed down to nine different women: Keely Moll, Stephanie Ozard, Reva Hutkin, Lois M. Stewart, Nairobi, Jeanne Healy, Amanda White, Carol Ritchie-MacKintosh and Ruth Christine . . It’s a remarkable collection of unique voices. The filmmakers have also included an interview with Ann Bannon, who wrote six lesbian novels in the 1950s and 60s, known collectively as The Beebo Binker Chronicles. Unlike most writers of the time, Bannon’s editor gave him the freedom to create happier endings for his characters.
The idea of using dramatized segments in a documentary film was still relatively new in 1992. Just four years earlier, Errol Morris had caused some controversy in the documentary world when he included dramatized re-enactments in his film. . The thin blue line. Today, of course, dramatizations and re-enactments are de rigueur on networks like The historic chain and Discovery, but it was still a bold choice in 1992. Yet it is a crucial element in the finished film. Despite the fact that the interviewees faced fierce opposition and even persecution, they avoided any sense of victimization and instead found empowerment through their disregard for societal norms. That is why Forbidden love embraces the fantasy world of the framing device – it’s a way to reclaim the dream that has been negated by the punitive nature of pulp novels. It provides the perfect counterpoint to how real women were able to reclaim their own identities from being lost in time by telling their stories for the camera.
Cinematographer Zoe Dirse shot the interviews for Forbidden love on standard 16mm film (she didn’t have access to Super 16) and shot the frame segments on 35mm film using an Arriflex 35BL camera. It was all finished in 16mm, then pumped up to 35mm for theatrical release, which was framed at 1.37:1. Since the original camera negative for the film has deteriorated and is in fragile condition, this transfer used a 16mm interpositive instead. The National Film Board of Canada digitized this at 2K resolution, then cleaned it up and digitally graded it. The results look fairly clean, although this comes at the expense of the textures of the film backing itself. There is very little graininess present despite the 16mm origin, so it looks like some noise reduction has been applied. The detail is a little soft too. Still, given the nature of the movie, that’s not really a problem. Archive footage from the film shows damage and instability, but that’s to be expected. Colors tend to be muted, but generally look natural. It’s a perfectly adequate transfer for a documentary like this.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The audio has been restored to 24-bit resolution from the original magnetic tracks. It’s clean, with no noticeable damage, although there is a bit of excessive sibilance in some dialogue. Kathryn Moses’ musical score and source songs heard throughout the set sound great.
Canadian International Pictures’ Blu-ray release of Forbidden Love: Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives comes with a reversible insert that features two variations of the new pulp covers that were designed for the film (the ones used for the framing device). There was also a cover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 1,000 units, which is already sold out. The following extras are included:
- Director’s audio commentary with optional follow-up
- Crew audio commentary
- The Ann Bannon Chronicles (HD – 17:50)
- Questions and answers on political cinema (HD – 22:48)
- EPK Interview (SD Scaled – 7:07)
- After (HD – 18:32)
The first commentary track with directors Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman is moderated by Jean Bruce, Associate Dean at Ryerson University. They open by explaining the reason for the unusual opening title cards – their use of archival footage from the CBC and other sources required a disclaimer, so they decided to undermine that at the end and d make a joke of it. They then do a production history, explaining how they had to develop their own network to find all the women they interviewed. The locations were chosen in collaboration with the interviewees, and many of them chose places that they found stimulating. Fernie and Weissman’s favorite cut of the film was three hours long and filled with digressions. So while they don’t necessarily regret cutting it, they’re still happy that the longer cuts are digitized and digitized in the archive. (It’s a shame that none of the additional footage could be included on this disc.) The most important thing for them was to honor the lives of the women they featured. This commentary can be played with or without a brief afterwards, which is also included as a separate supplement on the disc.
The second commentary features Zoe Dirse, along with sound recordist Justine Pimlott, camera assistant Carolyn Wong, production manager Geeta Sondhi, production assistant Glace Lawrence and editor Cathy Gulkin. They discuss their experiences leading an all-female crew at a time when that was still rare, and what making the film meant to them personally. Since Dirse worked exclusively in the documentary world, filming the dramatized segments was his first time in a fictional setting. Gulkin notes how the editing has changed in the decades since the film was made – they went to great lengths to avoid breaks in continuity that wouldn’t even be an issue today. There were also challenges getting a few women to open up, but the all-female nature of the crew helped overcome any inhibitions.
In a way, these two commentary tracks are perfect extensions of the film itself. Forbidden love is an invaluable record of women telling their stories, and that’s exactly what all female commentary track participants do as well: tell their own particular stories. The ten women who sat in front of the camera in 1991/1992 are joined decades later by eight of the women who filmed them, and overall it’s an invaluable collection. (Note that most of the participants were recorded remotely, so there are a few audio anomalies on both tracks, but nothing prevents them from being understood.)
The Ann Bannon Chronicles is a new interview with Bannon, in which she gives more details about how she became an author, and also talks about her involvement in the film. The Questions and answers on political cinema was recorded in 2015 at a screening of the film organized by Cinema Politica Concordia in Montreal. Directors Fernie and Weissman are joined by Jean Bruce and author Gerda Cammaer, with Dr. Thomas Waugh as host. It opens with the presentations before the screening, then moves on to the Q&A that followed. (They are joined by Zoe Dirse and actor Lynn Adams at the end.) EPK Interview with Fernie and Weissman was recorded in 1992 for use by the media during film coverage. It is divided into segments which can be cut and used as needed. Finally, the After is a continuation of the conversation between Fernie and Weissman while recording their commentary track. It really flows more naturally if played with the commentary, but it’s nice that CIP gave the option to see it separately.
It’s not necessarily a huge collection of extras, but the quality far outweighs the quantity. Forbidden Love: Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives was a landmark film in 1992, especially for Canadian cinema, but it has been eclipsed since then. This essential Blu-ray from Canadian International Pictures does justice to the film itself, but it also pays homage to the women who made it. Stories like these need to be told.
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