Our first dispatch from the festival highlights an important milestone in women’s sports history, and two tales of queer resilience.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Ahh, the Toronto International Film Festival — while we’ve got boots on the ground up in the chilly climes of Canada, those of us who can’t swing the travel expenses are here, tackling the lesser-known releases that don’t get the attention they deserve among the splashy awards campaigns and A-list stars. (Of course, there being an active strike makes that far easier, with these smaller works in even greater need of appraisal.)
Opening the Docs program at TIFF for opening night was Copa 71, an intriguing if straight-across-the-pitch documentary about the first Women’s World Cup — but not the official one endorsed by FIFA in 1991, as professional women’s footballers are shocked to learn in the opening minutes. The real one, it turns out, was in 1971, organized in Mexico City at their enormous Azteca Stadium. More than 100,000 attendees filled the stands, as teams from France, Mexico, the Netherlands, and more competed for the first-ever women’s football tournament — one of the biggest crowds such a tourney has ever seen. And it’s been lost to history, until now.
Thankfully, directors Rachel Ramsey and James Erskine sought to document this event as thoroughly as possible, assembling impressive archival footage of the events at Azteca (though there were other events at other venues that may have been lost to time) alongside in-depth interviews with some of the athletes who were there at the time. Ripened by age, but not diminished, these impressive women recount the joy of those precious days — every save, every goal, every moment of friendly competition and team camaraderie — as easily as it were yesterday. They’re the real bread-and-butter of the documentary; while experts and historians weigh in on the innate sexism that led to Copa ’71’s erasure from history (i.e. FIFA never officially endorsed it because they couldn’t stand the prospect of women excelling in a sport reserved, in their minds, for men), it’s the emphasis on the impact it’s had on the player’s lives that takes center stage.
All in all, it’s a powerful tale of female pioneers who set the stage for the vibrant sport women’s football would become. “You just said I made history… I’m sorry, history?” one player weeps in response to an interviewer’s question. That response hammers home the importance of this tale in the history of sport; even if you’re not a soccer fan, Copa 71‘s subject matter is well worth a watch.
Another tale of perseverance (this one fictional, though likely highly autobiographical) comes from M.H. Murray‘s thoughtful, intimate debut I Don’t Know Who You Are, a film as compelling in its personal scope as it is occasionally frustrating. Not for the lack of talent on display, mind you; Murray’s command of his story’s small-scale drama is admirable, not to mention producer and star Mark Clennon‘s soulful, withdrawn performance as Benjamin, a gay Black man suddenly scrambling for $900 to pay for the PEP medication he needs after a sexual assault has him worried about his chances of contracting HIV.
Even before the event (rendered with stark immediacy and vulnerability, thanks partly to Spencer Creaghan’s wailing, sax-forward score), Benjamin wrestles with his own introversion, blended neatly with his own poverty as a struggling musician. He’s fresh out of a relationship that ended badly, and in his first furtive steps with a new man (Anthony Diaz) he’s caught feelings for but hasn’t had sex with yet. Then, after his assault, he’s left with the haunting uncertainty of HIV — not just whether or not he has it, but whether he can prevent it from taking hold in his system.
Murray presents the danger with all its attending anxiety, as Benjamin leaps from one possibility to another, frantically trying to raise money from friends, old lovers, and music students — all while trying to keep the context of his exposure to himself. More than anything, it’s an exploration of the immediate aftermath of trauma, and the ways we both try to run from it and confront it head-on in the hours and days that follow; Clennon’s steady, powerful performance bears that out.
Unfortunately, I Don’t Know Who You Are suffers inexorably from the jitters of first-time filmmaking: The lack of budget, some audio mixing issues, and a few melodramatic turns near the end that could have been ironed out with a more experienced hand at the pen. But the pieces are so strong it’s easy to forgive these trespasses, especially as it mellows out into a more hopeful conclusion — one that reflects a current world in which HIV exposure doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Thrilled to see what Murray does next.
Next up is yet another tale of queer resilience, albeit one more sugary and sunny: Jen Markowitz‘s feel-good doc Summer Qamp. Here, we spend some time with the latest crop of kids to attend Camp fYrefly, a queer-inclusive camp just outside Calgary where trans, non-binary, and other LGBTQIA+ youth come to learn more about themselves, explore their identities, and (most importantly) live as their authentic selves without the stressors of a queerphobic home life.
We’re quickly introduced to our infectiously likable group of li’l charmers, each of them with their own endearing quirks and specific gender journeys. There’s an autistic spiky Goth trans person named Ghoul, who loves to pair disassembled doll parts with black spiky collars; there’s Manessa, a 16-year-old Black enby adopted by a white family and struggling to find anyone else like them; multiple kids named Ren/Wren; and, of course, the trio of transmasc cool kids, who roll in with their skater hair like they own the place.
Simply put, Summer Qamp goes down real easy — like the camp in which it’s set, its goal is merely to humanize and shine a light on these queer youth who, as with the rest of us, are just trying to figure themselves out. A trans boy sends a text to his mom finally coming out while at the camp; camp counselors do makeovers for budding trans girls; kids excitedly skitter through a clothing swap to find attire that’s more affirming for them. It’s all quite heartwarming, especially when paired with the struggles these kids mention in confessionals — tales of rejection, hiding, and lack of understanding. The world makes it hard to just be them, or to even figure out what ‘them’ means: at Camp fYrefly, we see precious moments of them coming out of their shell to find community and queer joy. (One scene, where a quirky trans kid named Ghoul starts the first fleeting steps of getting over their fear of horses, has great impact.)
It’s not the most sophisticated doc in the world, nor does it lurch forward into outright political advocacy. Summer Qamp merely seeks to normalize, to show the world the jubilation queer kids feel when they’re merely allowed to be themselves. For similar kids curious about their identity, it hopefully allows them to see themselves reflected in Manessa, Jade, Ghoul, and the other kids who get to be themselves without judgment for a few precious weeks. And maybe, God willing, it’ll change some minds.