With their uplifting debut feature documentary, Summer Qamp, Toronto-based filmmaker Jen Markowitz invites us to spend a week at the LGBTQIA+ CAMP fYrefly in rural Alberta, Canada. As we get to meet their engaging queer and trans teenage subjects, refreshingly and powerfully Markowitz allows them to speak for themselves, unhurried and uninterrupted. For many of them, camp was the first time that they were surrounded by people like themselves 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. Summer Qamp is a timely antidote to the barrage of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation that our community’s youth continues to be the target of. Read our full review from TIFF 2023.
Earning three Canadian Screen Awards for writing and producing Canada’s Drag Race, Markowitz’s television and film career has also seen them work in casting on movies like Lars and the Real Girl and The Spiderwirck Chronicles, and receive a People’s Choice nomination and an Imagen award for producing an eight-episode series focused on trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming youth, Shine True.
Following the world premiere of Summer Qamp at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Jen Markowitz had an exclusive conversation with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about wanting to create a joyful film for and about LGBTQ+ young people, how working on Canada’s Drag Race allowed them to bring their full queer self to work for the first time, the impact that the films of the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s had on them, and their admiration for JD Samson.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What does Summer Qamp being selected to play at TIFF mean to you, especially as Toronto is your hometown?
Jen Markowitz: “It means a lot. I grew up going to this festival and I never dreamt that I’d have a film play here, so it’s huge. It hasn’t really hit me yet.”
How did you first hear about CAMP fYrefly and why did you want to make a film about it?
“The camp is affiliated with Tegan and Sara, who are friends with a couple of the amazing team of execs on the film. They made the connection between the camp and the filmmaking side of things and then I came on board once they’d got the ball rolling. They brought me in, I met the camp staff and all the kids and I hit the ground running.”
There’s a beautiful song by Tegan and Sara that plays over the end credits, “I’m Not Your Hero”. The lyrics really resonate with the themes of the film.
“You’re right, it’s a very meaningful set of lyrics when it comes to what these kids are going through. As soon as I knew that we’d be able to include some of Tegan and Sara’s music in the film, I knew the exact moment that I wanted to use that song.”
We see the teenagers being interviewed in their bedrooms about their expectations of what camp will be like. How did you decide who to focus on and how did you go about establishing a relationship with them and earning their trust?
“I spent a couple of months getting to know them and their parents over Zoom so the trust between us built slowly but steadily. With the campers who seemed the most enthusiastic about the project, it felt natural to keep rolling forward together with them as our main subjects. So it organically fell into place rather than us picking who to focus on.”
“We figured out together what their stories were and how we were going to tell them in a way that they were comfortable with. I didn’t want anybody to be surprised when they saw their story on the screen because they’re young to be vulnerable in this particular way. To be vulnerable on camera is enough, but to be vulnerable about your queerness on camera is a huge leap of faith. It was important to me to keep everybody feeling good during the whole process.”
We hear so much in the news about LGBTQ+ youth in discussions dominated by adult voices and it’s all too rare that we get to hear young queer and trans people speak for themselves. How far was that your intention from the beginning of the process?
“It absolutely was. I knew going into this that I wanted to make sure that we heard from as few adults as possible, because I really wanted it to be for them and about them.”
When we do hear from some adults it is in a really touching scene where the campers meet a group of LGBTQ+ elders. What was that interaction like to witness and as it played out did you immediately know that you were going to include it in the film?
“Absolutely, I’m a big advocate for intergenerational community and so many of the campers had never met a queer person older than the age of 15 or 16. The elders had so much to offer. One of them, Lois Szabo, opened the first gay bar in conservative Calgary in the 1970s. I knew it was going to blow these kids’ minds hearing what these elders had achieved. I also knew that this group of elders was going to learn a ton from these kids. It was really beautiful to see them be surprised by each other. That’s also an experience that I had a camp. I walked in thinking that I knew who I was and knew the lay of the land, but I was rendered completely silent by watching these kids and learning from them about what queer youth is like now. It blew me away.”
“Hearing how many different times the kids had come out to their parents really expanded my mind in terms of what is possible and viable in today’s queer world. It’s about true authenticity. Instead of choosing a fork in the road, you get to build that road to figure out who you are. I’ve been asked what my life would have been like if I’ve had this camp to go to and I truly cannot conceive of it because it’s not a matter of removing one brick of a foundation of who I am, it would have completely rerouted absolutely every aspect of my life. I was born in 1979 and I feel like we all grew up with this tenacity to push through the shit that the world was was throwing at us as queer people. It’s a great quality to have, but I don’t love that we all had to find in ourselves.”
I love the scene where we see a few of the campers lying down under the stars, so comfortable in each other’s company chatting away about whatever is on their minds. Why was that something that you wanted to include?
“I have so many memories of being a teen and going to parties where we’d look up at the stars and talk about nothing and laugh and have the most fun, but I also remember hiding a big part of myself. Not having a community that really sees and understands you when you’re growing up means that you can have all these formative experiences as a kid, but shutting off a part of yourself limits how much joy you can get out of it. I knew that I wanted to see the kids stargazing and as soon as there was a clear night I was like, ‘Who wants to go to stargazing? Let’s go do this!’ I saw the campers hopping around camp with so much joy and I knew that if they were lying under the night sky they were going to say some nonsense teen adorable queer joyful shit!”
It’s so nice just to see them be in that scene. You give us a palpable sense of the fun of the camp experience and the deep connections that the kids form with one another.
“One thing that’s a staple in the queer community is that we always know how to laugh at ourselves and at each other. There was no shortage of that at camp, you could really see people let go. With the kids who showed up on day one and didn’t talk to anybody, by the end of camp they had their one kid who you’d never see them apart from. Everybody found somebody there and it was because they weren’t being asked any questions, they were just set free in the wilderness.”
To what extent do you think young queer and trans people in Canada are being effected by the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation in the United States?
“I hate to say it, but it’s happening here in Canada too. I see anti-queer and anti-trans rhetoric here and I know that a lot of the campers in the film experience it in their lives outside of the camp. When things are just sort of bad you can maybe turn up some reassurance by saying, ‘This is going to pass, I’m sure it’s fine’, but I don’t know if is, it’s really bad out there. It’s disastrous what this community is going through. As much as I wish that I could offer something to the world that could help fix this, I decided early on that the path to my goal would be to make a piece of work that young queer people could watch and feel okay about themselves for 90 minutes. Those are the eyes that I want on the film. Those are the people I want to affect. I don’t care about what any detractors have to say because their voice is loud enough.”
“I love talking to young people and I’m 100% in whenever there’s a chance for the campers to talk about their experiences or for me to be talk about the film with different intersections of the queer community. Actually, I went back to camp as a staff member this year and taught some storytelling and filmmaking workshops. It was the best. I deeply care about this community.”
There are some beautiful meditative landscape shots throughout the film reflecting your onscreen introduction which is a lot more considered than most of the land acknowledgement I’ve seen. Why was it important to you to open the film in that way?
“You’re the first person to ask me about the land acknowledgement and I’m happy that you did. We were filming on traditional First Nations land and we had been welcomed to film there by several members of that community. I don’t think I really understood land acknowledgments when I endeavored to put one on this film and through the process of writing it and learning the ways that they can impact people I really got called in.”
“I had discussions with members of these communities about what the land acknowledgement should say, but the onus was on me to write it from my heart and to do something more than just acknowledge that we were allowed to film on the land. I found myself called to task in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. It is about the notion of real, actionable allyship and that became clear with meeting these kids and their families too. What also became clear to me were the ways that I would really like to be an actionable ally to the Indigenous communities. It was about leaning into the things that I haven’t been a good enough ally for. It’s not easy, but it’s a good experience and I encourage everybody to do it.”
Before Summer Qamp you worked on Canada’s Drag Race, what was that experience like?
“I did the first two seasons and it was the best. It was the first time in my career that I was hired to be a chaotic queer! When I showed up on the first day, the producer who hired me, Mike Bickerton, said, ‘Write a couple of acting challenges and write the singing challenge. Go nuts, make it as silly as you want!’ I really came into my queerness on that show. I’d come into it personally anyway, but professionally I’d never shown up as exactly how wild I can be. That was an amazing show and I’m still pals with a lot of people from it. Actually, Priyanka from season one interviewed me here at TIFF about Summer Qamp, so that felt very funny and very weird! I love Priyanka. I’ve never met anybody who’s better at making fun of themselves. That is such a winning attitude. She’s barrier-free. You don’t set up any barriers for yourself when you make fun of yourself like that.”
Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“JD Samson, the musician and artist from Le Tigre and MEN. I’ve watched her navigate changes in the queer community and she’s the only person I’ve ever seen do it with the intention of bringing people together in conflict, as opposed to this tendency to completely splinter the community off into older queer people and younger queer people particularly. I’ve watched her navigate thorny conversations and really bring people together to see eye to eye and understand each other. That’s influenced me more so as a storyteller than it has as a queer person, but she also happens to be the most queer person I’ve ever met in my life.”
“In terms of culture, the New Queer Cinema wave of the 90s was super influential for me because I was growing up at that time. Filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, Rose Troche, and Guinevere Turner were all making these films about queer people that completely blew my mind as a kid. That set me up with a sensibility and a goal to tell the stories of my generation, and I guess a couple of generations younger than me in the case of Summer Qamp. Those films really got me interested in storytelling and filmmaking because they were all such harsh stories at a time when most American studio films were pretty soft and dewy. These were brutal stories about queer people flipping cars and shooting each other and stuff like that. They weren’t exactly images of a positive future, but they represented our rebelliousness at a time when we had to fit in. They taught us how to be rascals on the edge of the wall. It really sparked something in my brain that I haven’t let go of and I still go back and rewatch those films all the time. Part of the reason I wanted to make Summer Qamp feel so joyful was because I’d grown up without seeing a ton of that. So I’m kind of pissed about that, but at the same time those are all some of my favourite films.”
By James Kleinmann
Summer Qamp world premiered at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival and will receive its Australian premiere at the 33rd Melbourne Queer Film Festival, with screenings on November 11th, 18th, and 19th. MQFF33 runs November 9th – 19th, 2023. For the full lineup and to purchase tickets head to mqff.com.au.