533 STATEMENTS (Tori Foster, Canada). 75 minutes. Screening with FAG , Saturday (May 27), 2:30 pm. ROM. www.torifoster.com/533Statements Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Tori Foster looks like the archetypal tom boy next door.
All glasses, spiky blond hair and gangly limbs, she's like a more academic incarnation of Mary Stuart Masterson's tough-romantic drum-bashing Watts in Some Kind Of Wonderful.
Foster's probably the type of girl you'd picture if someone asked you to close your eyes and imagine a typical city-savvy 20-something dyke, the type of girl who causes conservative matrons in public washrooms to direct the 12-year-old skater boy to the men's room next door.
In some ways, her identity as a young queer is written broadly in the signifiers she presents to the world. And that's the sign of a girl who's moved beyond grappling with being not-normal growing up in Barrie and who's still eager to find allies on the streets of the big city.
"There was nothing in Barrie for someone who identified as anything other than straight," explains Foster, picking bits off a croissant on the back patio of West Queer West outpost the Beaver. "But one of the great things about living there was that it's so close to Toronto. So when I was really, really needing to escape, I could head down here and at least drink from the oasis. I really wanted to hear stories similar to mine."
That thirst for other people's narratives is what inspired Foster to make 533 Statements, a thesis project for her final year in Ryerson's new media program that's morphed into a remarkably assured feature-length doc and launched her career as a filmmaker. (Since being accepted to Inside Out, Foster's received calls from international fests.)
A stylishly edited travelogue set to a dyke-friendly post-Lilith soundtrack, 533 Statements documents Foster's road trip to interview queer-identified women (and one trans boy) in rural armpit enclaves and urban centres across Canada, gathering stories from characters who range from Buddha-like 17-year-old soft butch Chantel in Mission, BC, to flaky earth-faerie Luna in Montreal, from bisexual critical thinker Jovana in Ottawa to transgendered sweetheart Jaye in Guelph.
Foster, who's incorporated ideas about gender and sexuality into much of her work (one installation involved altering the icons on washroom doors to create gender confusion), says the doc evolved naturally from a previous print-based project about identity.
"My intention was to have people identify themselves without using typical labels, unpacking what most people see as being one word. Instead of saying, 'Yeah, I'm a lesbian,' you got 10 minutes of air time to talk about and show who you really were. I had a fucking incredible time doing that, and I wanted to continue with it on the film, but go bigger on every level."
Besides the expanded geography, Foster goes bigger with 533 Statements by asking unconventional questions. Instead of a clichéd series of coming-out stories ("I didn't want that at all!" she groans), you get offbeat and often illuminating anecdotes about favourite objects, regional dis-parities and stereotypical hairstyles.
For folks who live and breathe queer theory, the subject matter might seem tame, but moments like tranny-boy Jaye's cogent discussion of macho bullshit in the trans community or manic Winnipegger Madeline's oddly affecting account of leaving Playboys and nudie-girl posters in her bedroom to piss off her bigoted parents resonate on a deep level.
Foster admits that 533 Statements falters in terms of diversity. Femmes are markedly underrepresented, and, even more problematic, East Coast Asian-Canadian Sharon is the film's sole woman of colour.
"That's been the biggest critique," she sighs, admitting that a two-month pre-production window and her approach to finding subjects (e-mail blasts, word of mouth and message board postings) limited the sample. "Ideally, in my next project I'll have the time, money and human resources to seek out people who aren't as well represented in the media.
"Sharon, for instance, told me about how in her East Asian culture there's a thing called pet sisters. Basically, girls at all-girls schools have friends who in our culture would be considered girlfriends, and it's totally kosher!
"After Sharon came to Canada, someone from back home came to visit, met Sharon's girlfriend and was like, 'Ugh, pet sister? I thought you would have left that behind.'
"I would have loved to have more stories like that in the piece."
Foster has the measured, thoughtful, slightly restrained manner of someone well versed in both sides of the interview process. She speaks so articulately and analytically about her subject that it's hard not to wonder why she didn't include more of her own story in 533 Statements. Aside from a harrowing breakdown sequence midway through, brief editorial comments and zany driving shots, she doesn't appear on camera.
"I'm a bit camera-shy," she admits.
Nevertheless, one of the most interesting things about 533 Statements is how clearly it's about Foster's own journey and ability to connect with people, whether or not she's visibly present.
After immersing herself in the world of queer-girl Canadiana, Foster says she was shocked by the documentary's power to register with a wider audience.
"Early on, I was at a campsite and ended up talking to this kind of weird guy. I was travelling alone, and normally I was pretty discriminating, but there was something about this guy . He was a big, burly older guy from Alabama, and when I told him about my project he got very emotional.
"He told me about his son, who is gay, and how he hates how hard it was. He'd initially kicked his son out of the house, but they'd reconciled. He said he still loves his son so much, and now goes with him to gay bars because his son gets harassed at straight bars.
"It was an amazing story. I wanted him to go on camera, but he wouldn't do it. I was touched that he found such a personal connection to my project."
533 STATEMENTS (Tori Foster, Canada). 75 minutes. May 27, 2:30 pm. ROM. www.torifoster.com/533Statements Rating: NNN
What's it like to be under 30, a queer woman and Canadian? Tori Foster, who fits all those criteria, drives across the country to capture the titular 533 Statements, some of which are banal but most of which are illuminating.
What's refreshing is the lack of already-covered ground. The film's not weighed down by coming-out stories, Foster frequently asks unusual questions ("What's your favourite thing?") and is not above aiming the camera at herself. A funny early moment comes when she admits she's had enough of lesbians and hides away in a park to read a book ("not about lesbians").
Although the subjects aren't as diverse as you might hope (surely Foster could have found one African-Canadian or native dyke), they cover a wide geographical range, even if there is a bias toward rural or small-town women (and one trans boy). Their candid revelations, smartly edited, reveal a desire for expression and community that's honest and moving.
- GLENN SUMI