A Conversation with Mathew Hays on The View from Up Here

Since graduating from Concordia University, Matthew Hays has had an eclectic career as a contributing writer for The Montreal Mirror and has written for other publications such as The New York Times, The Toronto Star and The Advocate. Hays also teaches Film Studies, Journalism, and Communication Studies at Concordia.
Any student who has taken one of his classes can attest to the fact that Hays obviously loves what he does and that his passion is contagious. Now he has written The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers which features interviews with gay filmmakers.
The View from Here is the first book of its kind and has been garnering great reviews: “A highly readable collection of interviews. Attractive and well-researched, this is a worthy reference book for cinephiles”- NOW Magazine.
Toronto Life deems it “so simple, elegant, and obvious, it makes you wonder why it hasn’t been written until now”; and it was recommended as summer reading by The Advocate.
Matthew graciously accorded an interview to The Concordian in which he discusses his book. What follows are excerpts from the interview:

The View from Here started as a thesis for your Master’s at Concordia, when the concept initially came to you, did you have any idea it would turn into a book?

In fact, I had initially thought of The View from Here as a book concept. Then, my MA advisor, Dennis Murphy, told me he thought it was a superb idea and that it should form the basis of my thesis project. So I finished the degree and then had the beginnings of the book.

When did you realize its potential as a book?

I realized its potential as a book when I did some basic research and realized that it had never been done. Thirty years ago, there weren’t so many openly-gay people working as directors. Now, there are loads of them. How did cinema and our popular culture alter and affect our attitudes about homosexuality so much? Clearly there are strong connections. I wanted to explore that, but through the words of the filmmakers themselves.

You mention in your acknowledgments that certain Concordia faculty members provided you with support and motivation to write and complete this book. Can you tell me how the university as a whole has helped your vision for The View from Here?

Concordia is such an open university. The faculty is amazing. When I did my film studies degree here, the professors I had made a huge impact. I think having Profs as incredible as Carole Zucker and Tom Waugh really did change the way I saw the world, and opened up the possibility that I could make a living doing the things I really loved: writing and studying cinema. I credit this university with a great deal of who I am today. I have a very successful and rewarding career as a result of my education here. Do I sound like a Concordia ad right now?

Which filmmaker most impressed you with his or her generosity of participation?

They were all very generous. I think someone like John Greyson is always very gracious and generous in the interview process. He’s very eloquent and highly intelligent, so it’s sort of impossible to get a bad answer out of him.

Many of the filmmakers interviewed are documentary filmmakers, why do you think documentary film is a popular genre among queer filmmakers?

Documentary is certainly easier for many filmmakers, as it’s cheaper to do, and the people who make documentary are often people who are interested in social issues, whether it be anti-war movements, the environment or human rights.

Gay filmmakers seem to be attracted towards damaged or marginalized characters. Do you think having lived through ostracization would make gay filmmakers more sensitive and empathetic towards their subjects? Does this give them an edge or hinder them because the proximity between director and subject may cause the subject to appear exploited on film?

One hopes that, being in a minority that makes people more sensitive to the plights of other oppressed people. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way, but one can hope. Cole and Dale have made so many intriguing films. Certainly, their Hookers on Davie opened them up to the charge that they were exploiting the sex workers profiled in the film. But I strongly disagree-I think that’s a remarkably empowering film, and they gave people who are often voiceless a chance to speak out about their own lives.

The film industry is amply male dominated. Is it especially hard for lesbian filmmakers to carve out a place for themselves?

Clearly, for women generally it appears to be tough. Why that hasn’t changed when so many other vocations have improved their gender balance, I don’t know. Look at medicine: over 50 per cent of those enrolled in medicine programs are women. The director’s chair seems to be a more complicated place to get to than we’d originally thought.

In the article you wrote for The Globe and Mail, “Flying under the radar: The story of Canada’s gay and lesbian filmmakers” (May 26, 2007) you wrote that “What led Canadian cinema to be so much more open to sexual diversity is arguably the very thing we’ve tended to lament for decades: We are not part of the Hollywood dream factory.” Do you think this is a blessing in disguise, leading queer Canadian filmmakers to be bolder in their work?

I think Canadian filmmakers, by the very fact that they operate outside of the Hollywood studios, has been tough, but it’s also had a silver lining. There are often a great deal of subversive ideas and themes in Canuck movies, including queer ones. Look at how many of our most prominent filmmakers are gay: John Greyson, Patricia Rozema, David Secter, Jeremy Podeswa, Bruce LaBruce… the list goes on and on. It’s something we should be intensely proud of.

Finally, you credit your students who have inspired you and provided insight, can you tell me more about the relationship you have with your students?

We have such a rich and intelligent group of students at Concordia. Whenever I enter a classroom I feel thankful. Teaching has quite simply proven a revelation to me. To see the films through new eyes every week, to hear the opinions of the students, that is such a charge. Their enthusiasm is an ongoing source of inspiration. Stephen Sondheim once called teaching “the sacred art.” I think he was on to something.

Arsenal Pulp Press and Matthew invite you to the book launch of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers. Wednesday, Oct. 17 at the Suco Lounge at the Opus Hotel, 10 Sherbrooke W. (corner Sherbrooke and St. Laurent.)


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