TIFF 2023 Film Review: Summer Qamp ★★★1/2

With regressive politicians in the United States seeking to implement legislation targeting queer and especially trans youth, including bans on gender affirming health care, participation in sport, bathroom use, book bans, and even forbidding the mention of the words “gay or trans” in schools, the loud voices of bigoted adults often overpower the kids themselves. What makes Toronto-based filmmaker Jen Markowitz’s (they/them) uplifting debut feature documentary, Summer Qamp, so refreshing and powerful is that the filmmaker hands the mic over to LGBTQ+ young people, allowing them to speak for themselves unhurried and uninterrupted.

As the film opens, we meet a series of LGBTQ+ Canadian teens in their bedrooms speaking directly to camera, sharing their excitement and anxiety as they prepare to spend a week at CAMP fYrefly in rural Alberta, where all their fellow campers and counselors will also be LGBTQ+. For many of them it is the first time that they will be surrounded by people like themsleves and one of the pure joys of the film is watching these young people arrive mostly as strangers and begin to make meaningful connections with one another.

Markowitz’s cuts through the noise of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric to focus on the thoughts, concerns and hopes of their engaging subjects. As they continue to discover themselves, several young people describe coming out multiple times to their parents using different labels as they embrace their identities. Summer Qamp captures how empowering it is for them to be among other young people who have had similar journeys. While experiences of bullying and self-harm are discussed, being at camp is a healing experience where these young people can relax and truly be themselves without fear of being judged by their peers at school or their parents at home.

Lulu Wei’s beautifully cinematography captures the stunning Alberta landscape of mountains and lush green trees that surrounds the camp, while Derek Esposito and Cecilio Escobar’s well-paced editing uses these moments effectively to give the film room to breathe. They are meditative sequences that not only punctuate the film, but also give the audience time to reflect on the land itself, contextualizing the experiences of today’s young queer and trans folks with “the people of various gender identities who have existed in Indigenous cultures for all of time”, as the opening land acknowledgment reminds us. While Ames Bessada’s buoyant, eclectic score is sparingly used, and never manipulates the viewer.

One of the most memorable scenes is a quiet, contemplative one that encapsulates the magic of the camp experience with a small group of new friends laying on the grass looking up at the clear night sky talking about the kind of things that teens do, imagining their ideal planet out there in the expansive of the universe. Later, a touching and powerful scene of intergenerational exchange sees some “Rainbow elders” speak about their lives in rural Alberta and listen to the perspectives of the young campers. Although the focus remains on the young folks themselves, everyone has a favourite counselor at camp, and mine is definitely Marshall who helps to bring confidence and fun to camp with their “Lip Synch 101” sessions leading to a group performance at the end of the week.

By allowing the kids to speak for themselves, Markowitz conveys her message simply: just allow queer and trans kids to be; let them tell us who they are; believe them; support them; and help them live their lives, and thrive. Buoyed by their camp experiences, it’s heartening to hear their hopes and aspirations for what lies ahead. By the time the end credits song playas out—the wonderfully fitting “I’m Not Your Hero” by Tegan and Sara—there were tears of queer joy streaming down my face.

By James Kleinmann

Jen Markowitz’s Summer Qamp received its world premiere at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, September 9th and screens again on Sunday, September 10th at 4:30pm. TIFF 2023 continues until Sunday, September 17th, 2023. Tickets are on sale now at tiff.net.

Find more queer titles at TIFF 2023 in our LGBTQ+ highlights article.

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