Remember when grandpa said, “Here, son, take a swig of this—it’ll put hair on your chest,” and that kind of made you want to drink it even less because thorax fuzz is sooo passé? In Bear Nation, a new documentary making its way to Toronto this weekend, that very fuzz is downright necessary.
After 2006’s Small Town Gay Bar, Malcolm Ingram and his crew have gone on to do a more expansive exposé on the subcultural subculture existing within the gay community—bears. The word “bear” brings to mind a broad definition of personifications, from the cuddly and snuggly cub (see: Kevin Smith) to the rough rider set of leather bears. (We have found the Internet’s most comprehensive bear guide here.) Bear Nation seeks to explain how “bear” has gone from a quiet underground den of men to become a culturally accepted and comedically applied term for a hirsute or hefty male with a penchant for other men. The film, executively produced by honorary bear and Clerks alum Kevin Smith, features a conversation with the legendary Bob Mould, and a soundtrack including the local likes of Broken Social Scene, Zeus, and the Hidden Cameras, among others. And better yet, it all starts out in a basement at—where else?—Church and Wellesley.
We spoke with Toronto-based director (and yes, self-described bear) Ingram about getting a gay film, er, out, SModcasting, and the future of Toronto’s bear scene.
Torontoist: So, the movie’s out! Had the premiere at South by Southwest, and now you’re doing to the big tour—how’s that going?
Malcolm Ingram: Great! It’s a privilege—you work on a movie for a year, and in the end, the most important part is showing it. It’s a privilege to have people come out and spend their hard-earned cash. The reception’s been really good: a lot of people from the bear community really came and dug it. We had a mixed crowd of straights, gays…essentially, it’s a movie about an unlikely community, it’s about finding where people belong. You have to kind of appreciate people sharing their journeys, figuring out who they are.
That said, how much is this about telling your own personal story?
It’s all about my personal story. I’m a bear, you know! There’s no hiding it. It’s very much my journey, but it’s told through other people’s voices. I didn’t want to force myself in to the documentary. I figure my job as a filmmaker is to find my voice in my subjects and essentially the movie itself—I’m all over it, even if my face isn’t in it.
So you talked to Bob Mould [of Hüsker Dü fame, natch]. How did he get involved in the project?
Bob Mould is one of my idols. I’d known he was around and knew that he was gay and heard he was into the gay thing, and that blew my fucking mind. It was really funny, I talked to my editor on a Friday and was saying this perspective we need is someone who’s part of the mainstream. He’s kind of the perfect guy—he’s such an intelligent and thoughtful man, he would be a great voice, and on top of that I get the chance to meet my idol. So, we threw it out to [local music label] Arts and Crafts, who reached out to Mould, and Mould really quickly got back to us. We thought of it on Friday, and by Monday we sat down and talked to him. It was amazing, he’s such an intelligent, well-spoken, thoughtful guy, so to have him as part of the process was great.
Arts and Crafts are kind of cool, too!
That’s the thing, living in Toronto, you have that label Arts and Crafts, it’s like a cool badge. It’s funny, because if I was making a movie for like, ten million dollars, I’d use the same music. I’m not using this music because these people I know—it’s the best music I’m hearing, and on top of that they make it so affordable to me. Literally, Broken Social Scene is one of my favorite bands, I fucking love them, so to be able to use their music is an incredible privilege. When you make a gay movie, it instantly ghettoizes this thing. But when you have a cool soundtrack, and the support of incredibly cool, talented people who give you an endorsement by allowing their music on your movie, it raises the awareness level, and it enters the zeitgeist in a different way. All of these cool bands are in this gay documentary, and the people ask, “Oh, what is this all about?”
I remember on Small Town Gay Bar, there were a couple country songs I wanted to get on the soundtrack, just because they were songs I loved. Basically, my music supervisor said, “Gay subject matter and country music—they just won’t license you.” It’s not necessarily that the artist has a problem with it, it’s just that the label doesn’t want to be attached to it.
Cool. So, if it’s the arts community that’s more open to movies like yours, is there any chance you’ll be looking at a mainstream release?
Well, at this point it’s basically like throwing it up against a wall and seeing what sticks. We’re playing gay film festivals, we’re playing straight film festivals. We premiered at SXSW, we played at the Miami Gay Film Festival, we also played the Dallas Film Festival, and now we’re playing Inside Out. I think that the movie and its subject just transcend sexuality. I think because our message is about the community, everybody can kind of understand.
[At this point in the interview, our computer starts making all kinds of weird noises which ultimately reveal that we, as poor journalists, are calling via Skype, which prompts Ingram to comment…]
I just did a podcast on Skype, not even fifteen minutes ago.
Oh yeah? What were you podcasting for?
Oh, Kevin Smith’s got this thing called SModcast, I’m on one of his shows…
Of course. So, how has having Kevin Smith on board changed things?
Kevin’s awesome. Kevin is another angle. It’s such a privilege to have people like [Kevin Smith], who’ve built their own market and have established their own credibility, lending themselves to your project…it basically gives a potential audience to people who might not have heard about it. I’m someone who appreciates and respects that it’s not easy to build credibility in this world—true organic credibility where it’s not a corporate thing. I’ve been fortunate to be involved with some very generous people who are open-minded and like-minded—hopefully I don’t embarrass anybody. It’s also a lot of pressure, because you don’t want to make something that sucks.
Judging by the reception thus far, you haven’t done a terrible job…
You always get the people who are just, like, “Who cares?” We had one review that was just so completely dismissive about every aspect of it, it’s just, like, why watch a documentary on the subject if you don’t care about it? Look, I’m not reinventing the fucking wheel here, it’s a documentary about the bear community!
So, what separates Bear Nation from Small Town Gay Bar?
This one’s more of a personal journey for me, but ironically it’s less of a personal film. This movie is more of a show-and-tell format. Small Town Gay Bar followed a narrative that just kind of happened when we were filming: that one gay bar was closing down and another one was reopening, so we followed that. This movie—so many people ask me, “What is a bear?” So I made a documentary. This is what the bear community is, this is what it’s about.
What is a bear, to you?
I think “bear” is a state of mind—you are what you are, you is what you is. It includes either a hint of masculinity, a hint of hair, or a hint of, like, huskiness. It doesn’t have to have all of those things, but those are elements that are certainly predominant in the bear community. I don’t believe in stringently codifying things, stringently labelling things, and saying, “No, you can’t be a bear.” If you feel you’re a bear, you’re a bear.
The film starts off in a basement in Toronto. How is Toronto involved in the rest of the film?
Toronto has a big part in the film—the whole beginnings of the movie take place in Toronto. Toronto’s my home base, and Toronto keeps me humble. It’s that Tall Poppy Syndrome: nobody’s going to let you get a full hand. It was great to showcase part of the community that I’ve been a part of in the city.
I know Toronto used to have a “bear” bar, but not anymore—what’s up with that?
Toronto used to have this great bear bar called The Toolbox, but the guy who owned it is essentially now retired. I think the bear community in Toronto’s too fractured. You have this guy who does Bear Nights, and a Bear Promoter (Steve Buzcek), but it’s very fractured. We’re one of the only cities—Montreal has a bear bar. Vancouver has a bear bar. Fucking St. Louis has a bear bar. We have a very large and vibrant gay community and the fact that we don’t have a bear bar is bizarre.
So is there some kind of movement to get one?
The thing about the bears is that we’re getting kind of post-bear now. The bear movement’s been around now, for—ohmigod, like twenty-four–plus years? I don’t know what the future of the bear community is. It’s been around and it’s now hitting the mainstream and I don’t know which direction it’s gonna go. I’d love to see a bear bar—it’s like having a clubhouse. We haven’t had a bear bar in seven or eight years. It’s a riddle to me.
When you say the bear “movement” has gone mainstream, that’s kind of what the film is trying to explain?
It’s an examination of bear culture from a very personal journey all the way to the mainstream outlets. Now you have people like Kevin Smith and Kathy Griffin… David Duchovny is talking about bears on Leno. It’s out there now. When I first found the bear scene in the 90s, no one knew what it was. It was very much like a private club. Nobody knew what it was. My mother—my mother—now knows what a bear is. I wish my mother didn’t know what a bear was…
So, where do you see the bear scene in Toronto going?
I don’t know! Honestly, I think some of the younger guys in the movie, they don’t want to go places like the Black Eagle [a leather bar]; that’s not their scene. They go to cooler places, they blend more into the Queen West area. The younger gay community doesn’t have so much a need for the Gay Village; they find it kind of stifling. The Gay Village in Toronto, I think, has another ten years left in it and ultimately it’s just going to implode on itself. The Gay Village is essentially a big community closet—which is a great thing to have—but ultimately, it’s time to dissimulate into society. I’m as guilty as anyone, I live right in the heart of the Gay Village, but that’s just because I’m lazy and I’m not looking for another apartment. I think of it as a great thing for people who need it, but I like to hope we’re moving towards a direction where people don’t feel the need for a gay village anymore, for that safe haven. Toronto’s a pretty interesting, cool place—I’m definitely a fan.
All photos courtesy of Malcolm Ingram.
Bear Nation screens as part of Inside Out Film Festival this Saturday at 9:45 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre.