You must remember this: Film fest documentaries unearth forgotten histories

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BY STEVE MARTINDALE

SS FILM FESTIVAL SOCIETY

“The past is a foreign country,” begins L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, “they do things differently there.”

Three award-winning documentaries screening at the Salt Spring Film Festival at ArtSpring in early March remind us that the past may seem particularly foreign when history is either forgotten or erased.

The festival kicks off with Bobbi Jo Hart’s Fanny: The Right to Rock. The first all-women band to be signed by a major record label, Fanny’s status as musical pioneers — admired by the likes of David Bowie — has largely been overlooked. Addressing misogyny, racism and homophobia in the music industry, this celebratory documentary corrects our collective amnesia as the aging band members joyfully reunite after half a century to produce a new album.

History can be lost even within marginalized communities, as evidenced by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera’s revelatory P.S. Burn This Letter Please, in which a secret stash of letters resurfaces after 60 years to shine light on the little-known world of New York City drag queens in the 1950s. At a time when homosexuality was illegal and police brutality was commonplace, men who could be criminally charged for “masquerading as women” gathered to perform in underground drag bars run by the Mafia, which simultaneously controlled other criminal enterprises such as gambling and prostitution. Even within the LGBT community this history is not widely known.

Sometimes history is intentionally buried, as revealed in the festival’s closing night film My Tree, in which Toronto playwright Jason Sherman travels to the Holy Land to find the tree that had been gifted to him at his 1975 Bar Mitzvah, part of a popular fundraiser for the Jewish National Fund. Exploring the manicured parks and forests of Israel, Sherman unearths who and what had been removed from the land, asking tough questions about how so simple a gift could hide such dark truths.

Winston Churchill was fond of quoting Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana’s aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but perhaps this sentiment is due for an update. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to simply continue forgetting it…until someone with the fortitude to examine the blank spots in our collective memory writes a book or makes a film to remind us all of people who should never have been forgotten.

All screenings are at ArtSpring from March 1 to 6. More information at www.saltspringfilmfestival.com.

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