Essays, Movies

War Widows and Warm Winters: The Power of Queer Films of the Past, Rediscovered on YouTube

Queer history is always being erased. We see it when trans people are told that their existence conforms to a recent trend, when discussions about Stonewall leave out important revolutionaries like Marsha P. Johnson and prior inciting events like the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, and we see it all too often in discussions of films and film history. In an age where folks on the LGBTQ+ spectrum are seeing more and more mainstream representation, every new film is heralded as some kind of benchmark for queer representation, and often rightly so. It can be frustrating, though, to see films that feel regressive or limited be championed for breaking new ground. When queer films of prior decades are discussed, they’re often mentioned as curiosities or footnotes and branded as hard-to-find; hell, even books I’ve been trying to read on queer cinema have been hard to find.

For a long time, I just sort of assumed that before, say, the 1990s, queer storylines and characters on film were relegated to subtext. My consumption of film was limited to discourse from cisgender/heterosexual/white/male critics and the IMDB Top 250, a narrow Film Canon made up of Only The Best Works of Film Art…works that for the most part were mostly made by cisgender, heterosexual, white, male directors. Then, I started finding films that blatantly proved this not to be the case. The movie Maurice, a gay love story from the famous production company Merchant/Ivory, was released in 1987 and did decent box office business. Why is it relatively obscure compared to their adjacently-released films like A Room with a View, I wondered. As I started to look, more and more films came up, seemingly out of thin air. Not subtextual examples, but multiple films from prior decades with main characters who were explicitly gay and/or queer. Where had these films been? I had to go looking for them.

The real surprises came when I started watching obscure and out-of-print films on YouTube, and searching there for films I read about that proved hard-to-find. I was shocked to find films that challenge the common perceptions of what representation of queer people was like throughout the 20th century, and even earlier.

For instance, the first film to directly deal with queer themes in often cited to be 1919’s Different From the Others, a film which is partially lost, or 1914’s A Florida Enchantment (also available on YouTube!), but just through searching for early silent films I found simple, blatant examples that pre-date either of those. The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894 or 1895), clocking in at less than a minute and considered to be one of the earliest films ever made, features two men dancing intimately. Even more compelling is Pierrette’s Escapades (1900), which features two women dancing and ultimately sharing a kiss. These films are quick, simple reminders that same-sex intimacy has been around on film for as long as the medium of film has been around.

Two of the biggest and most fascinating surprises I’ve come across in the obscure queer film archives of YouTube have huge historical significance for gay men and lesbians on film, and film history as a whole, but have been almost completely forgotten in mainstream discourse. The first of these is the 1965 Canadian film Winter Kept Us Warm, which I stumbled upon as a random recommendation, automatically generated by YouTube’s algorithms. It’s a lo-fi, micro-budget film that I watched with very little context, getting drawn into its hypnotic and deeply affecting tale of two male university roommates whose unlikely friendship coalesces into a deeper attraction. It hasn’t been preserved too well, and the audio is often hard to discern, but the interpersonal content of the film is as plain as day and has the open-hearted and vulnerable qualities of all the best romance films. I was mesmerized.

I assumed I had found a hidden gem, so imagine when I looked it up and found out that Winter Kept Us Warm holds a surprisingly important place in film history. Not only was it the first English-language Canadian film to be exhibited in international film festivals, but it’s also the movie that inspired a young David Cronenberg to go into filmmaking. After seeing the film, I wasn’t surprised that it struck a chord with him, but I was surprised I’d never heard of it given its inspiration for a highly prominent and acclaimed filmmaker. Winter Kept Us Warm isn’t in print in any form in the US. No DVD, no streaming rental. If someone hadn’t uploaded it to YouTube and the algorithm hadn’t suggested it to me, I never would have seen it or known of its existence.

Another, even more personally surprising film I discovered is The War Widow (1976). This one I found via an excellent Autostraddle article, which links to the film on YouTube. I was shocked reading this article– I had read extensively about lesbian films of past decades, and to my knowledge the earliest film where the lesbian couple ended up together without dying, breaking up, or being villainized was the ever-popular Desert Hearts in 1985. Yet, here was this film from almost a decade earlier, a film that aired on public television no less, positively depicting a romance between two women. I needed to watch it.

The War Widow left its mark on my heart in a big way. It’s essentially an extremely PBS-styled version of Carol, with a hazy aesthetic, tons of poetic soul-baring dialogue and, just like Winter but with even more positivity, romanticism and focus, an achingly intimate central relationship that positively melted me. The thought of people watching this on PBS in the mid-70s thrilled me. Where had it gone since then? Why had I not heard of it? These are the questions queer erasure leaves us with. If we’re preserving film properly, the cream should rise to the top, but here are two of the most intimate and thoughtful romance films I’d ever seen from their respective decades, long unrestored and unavailable. I’d never been more thankful for YouTube.

But what about transgender representation? As a trans person, I can attest that the only thing more frustrating than cis performers being cast as trans characters is the assertion that we’re lucky to get films about trans people at all, and that cis people playing us is somehow a new improvement and a stepping-stone towards better representation. I believed this for a while– YouTube once again proved my assumptions dead wrong.

A few months before I came out to myself and started down the path of transitioning, YouTube recommended me a British film from 1996 called Different for Girls, which focuses on the shaky romance between a middle-class trans woman and the working-class punk biker man who used to be her best friend and defender from bullies in boarding school growing up.  I watched out of desperation to see any kind of positive plotline centered around someone who was like me in some way I couldn’t quite yet articulate. Different for Girls is, by a charitable assessment, a problematic film– it focuses on a cisgender man’s difficulties understanding trans issues and often paints his frustration in a more sympathetic light than it should. It casts a cis man as a trans woman. Characters talk a lot about surgery. With all that said, it was important to me for two reasons: First, it’s a romantic comedy with a happy ending that treats its female protagonist as desirable, lovable, and a generally nice and cool person, without her trans-ness diminishing any of that. It also proves that filmmakers have been stuck on the cis-man-plays-trans-woman “stepping stone” for at least 20 years. It made me want to see if I could find more films like it.

Find them I did, and all kinds as well. I Want What I Want, from 1972, has just about every bad cliche from transitioning narratives you could think of, but it also has a main trans character played by a cis woman (suggesting that the filmmakers, at the very least, understand what a trans woman even is), and multiple fiery scenes where she stands up for herself and confronts her abusive father, something more empowering than absolutely anything on display in 2015’s The Danish Girl. 1970’s The Christine Jorgensen Story, meanwhile, just reminded me of The Danish Girl pretty much non-stop, hitting almost all of that movie’s major flaws point-for-point, albeit with a much shoddier aesthetic. You’d think that decades of this kind of treatment on film would be disheartening, and on some level it very much is, but watching these retrograde films of yesteryear actually inspired and galvanized me– if this kind of Cis Bullshit has been going on since at least 1970, what better time than now to stop making excuses, move on, and finally make better movies?

Of course, what I really wanted to find were films that satisfied my craving for authentic trans representation, visions of People Like Me that I was missing in mainstream films of both present and past. Once again, YouTube delivered. Ich bin meine eigene Frau (alternately translated in English as I Am My Own Woman and I Am My Own Wife) is a tremendously unique and extremely obscure German film from 1992, once again unavailable in the United States outside of the fuzzy, VHS-sourced upload where I found it. It combines documentary and biopic techniques to tell the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an astonishing trans woman who survived World War II, the subsequent communist takeover, and Neo-Nazi attacks, all while running her own history museum in the town of Mahlsdorf. The film uses two actors (at least one of whom seems to actually be trans!) to portray her at younger ages, along with employing her as an actor in later biopic scenes depicting her as an old woman. She often interrupts biopic scenes to give notes to the actors or explain how things actually happened, and the whole film is tied together with her narration and interviews, and scenes of her giving a tour through her museum.

This movie made me feel seen, and connected me with the history of trans and queer people as few films have. A narrative that spans from the 1930s to the 1990s shows what it was like to be a trans person across many different periods of history, while also giving us a trans person’s view of a broader social history that has little to do with her trans-ness– there are many long scenes where Charlotte talks about the historical context of the antiquated clocks or furniture in her museum, for example. It also upholds and celebrates Charlotte’s assertion of her own gender in a way I found tremendously empowering. The film never lets others get the last word on her, letting her define herself. There are scenes where she talks about how she doesn’t feel the need to take hormones or medically transition to be valid as a woman; she is her own woman no matter what anyone else thinks. These statements are tremendously revolutionary in a normative society where trans people often have to go to lengths they otherwise wouldn’t in order to be valued by society, and to hear them expressed in a film is a deep joy.

Another significant film that upends conventional ideas of trans media representation is the 1966 short documentary film Behind Every Good Man, a film that follows a trans woman of color as she goes about her daily routine and talks about her desire for a husband and family. In some ways, this film is very of its time, but it’s crucial in the way it depicts and normalizes the average day of a marginalized person. So often the lives of trans people are sensationalized on film, and especially in documentaries, but the central figure of this film is shown to be Just Another Person. She walks down the street, a man asks her on a date, she gets ready for the date, then he stands her up and she’s sad, but life goes on. That’s all that happens. Her existence is legitimized, not exploited or diminished. Films like this, even the really short ones, are reminders that we (trans and/or queer people) have always existed, and that if we survived then, we can survive now.

For me, a person who thrives on consuming media and especially film, a lack of representation can often feel like being strangled, suffocated, held back. I’m usually extremely happy to connect to films with protagonists who aren’t demographically like me— that’s a large part of what makes them such a joyous experience, the ability to experience other lives for a short while, empathizing and understanding with the inner lives of others that films can reveal. But just once in a while, I’d like to know that other people were having that experience with films about people like me, and occasionally I’d like to have that sense of comfortable, intimate identification that I so rarely feel. Watching these films has given me that feeling. They’ve given me bursts of oxygen in an often-alienating world, and for that reason, I’m left with a strong conviction that the internet is a powerful place, with platforms that can potentially be used as a salve against erasure. To anyone who’s struggling to find yourself in film history: dig around on YouTube for a bit. The history won’t come to you on its own, but it’s easier to find than ever before.

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