It was the estimable Pierre Trudeau who, in 1967, boldly announced that the government had no place in the bedrooms of the nation. Two years later, as Prime Minister, he spearheaded the decriminalization of homosexuality, ushering in a new age of cultural sensitivity and national inclusivity. Stodgy, backwoods Canada was finally “with the times” – determinedly, part of Pierre’s famously pledged “just society.”
In reality, however, a government-led purge that had been at work since the early days of the post-war era increased after the PM’s progressive actions, unlawfully perpetuating the ruination of the careers and lives of a significant number of dynamic and dedicated public servants and military personnel – a practice which continued, unbelievably, till 1989.
Conscious that the 30th anniversary of the merciful end of said episode was approaching, Ottawa-based producer-director Sarah Fodey proposed a 90-minute documentary to provincial broadcaster TVO. What Fodey pitched was not an objective, historical account of this little-known national embarrassment but an exclusive first-person account; a safe space, if you will, in which its victims could share. For many, it would be their first time discussing their ordeal in detail.
The result, now out, is the moving documentary The Fruit Machine, slated to debut on TVO the last week of September, after a successful run on the festival circuit (the film has played at the Inside Out Festival in Toronto and at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. Next up: the Atlantic Film Festival and the LGBT Festival in Ottawa.)
The origin of the purge, addressed with aplomb and urgency by a government reeling from the Gouzenko affair, was that civil servants suspected of being gay might be susceptible to blackmail by the Soviet Union. Beginning in 1948, then, an internal blacklist was kept; in time, the major gay hang-outs in the Ottawa area, from the low-rent Rialto Theatre on Bank Street to the basement bar of downtown’s Lord Elgin Hotel, began to be frequented just as much by mysterious newspaper-reading strangers as by the regulars. Further, holes came to appear in walls, conduits for clandestine photography.
By the early 60’s, in a move toward “efficiency,” a psychological researcher from Carleton University was engaged to develop the titular “fruit machine,” a low-tech device aimed at determining homosexual tendencies based on pupilar reaction to stimulating images. Ultimately, it was revealed as the quintessential waste of taxpayer time and money (the Phoenix Gay System?) Nevertheless, persecution perpetuated.
The centrepiece of Fodey’s film takes place a decade later, when, in the heady days of feminism, Canadian women were invited to join the military. A brave handful, most between the ages of 18 to 21, did so, with wide-eyed enthusiasm and palpable patriotism. Despite distinguishing themselves in short order, many, suspected to be gay, were subject to dehumanization through investigation – a protracted assassination of character that included lie detectors, electro-shock treatments, and in several cases, rape. And all of this while a serious double standard was at work: married military men indulging in rampant sexual harassment, protected by the “boys will be boys” ethos still at large in our hermetic Forces.
To a person, those on camera display an admirable mix of bravery, honesty, emotion, and dignity. In many, we see the continuation of the struggle for closure and comfort, a process that continues in spite of a 2017 apology from the current PM –fittingly, Trudeau’s son – and a compensatory award of $100 million dollars. As Fodey tells it, one of the film’s subjects, having seen the film, informed her: “I almost feel that I can live again.”
An indictment against the Canadian government? Yes – but secondarily. Opting for humanism over didacticism, The Fruit Machine is first and foremost a first-person examination of the effects of the clandestine extremism of institutional culture on the deepest recesses of the human spirit.
With it, Fodey has given the voiceless voice – and Canadian documentary new relevancy.