The auditorium buzzes with chatter. Around ten rows of seats are filled to capacity, meaning latecomers are forced to hover at the back of the room. They aren’t going to get a spot, though: this is one of the summer’s biggest cultural events, and nobody is abandoning their seat. Students, scholars, and friends have arrived at Montreal’s Concordia University on a humid summer afternoon to toast Thomas Waugh – known by all as Tom – as he becomes a professor emeritus.
Waugh sits near the front of the De Seve Cinema, a room where he has taught numerous undergraduate classes at Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. Wearing a bright pink shirt, he is easy to spot from the projection booth. For more than two hours, a line-up of professors, co-workers, and friends take the stage to beam at Waugh and share their stories. Many of them note his exceptional work as the director of Concordia’s HIV/AIDS Project. Others talk about his illustrious publishing career, which focused mainly on documentary, queer culture, and Canadian cinema.
Filmmaker John Greyson nearly steals the show with a presentation examining Waugh’s onscreen appearances – many of which happen to be sans clothing. Waugh, who came out as a gay man at around the same time he began teaching at Concordia in the mid-1970s, takes it in with delight. Some of the naughtier sex-related jokes get giggles. Other jabs don’t land as hard. The whole event feels like a mix between an academic symposium and a Friars Club roast.
Waugh’s retirement from teaching will be a giant loss for film students. His legacy of pointed and persuasive writing about LGBTQ Canadian cinema, and his explorations into representation of gay culture in various media, will be immense. Still, as the co-founder of the still-nascent Queer Media Database Canada-Québec Project, Waugh has much work left to do to resuscitate the status of these under-seen films from across the country.
“We’re interested in reviving or keeping alive the archive of Canadian work. So much of it has just disappeared,” Waugh tells me at his office in the building that houses the university’s cinema school. (Disclaimer: I am a recent MA graduate of Concordia, and Waugh is my former professor.)
“This lack of accessibility is a problem that I’ve wrestled with throughout my whole career – not only of the Canadian canon but other kinds of marginal canons, like documentary or queer [films].”
The database, which he launched in 2015 with filmmaker and teacher Kim Simard, is an ever-evolving resource of films made by LGBTQ artists, or which focus on queer stories and characters. More than 2,000 films have profiles on the site, and some even include plot synopses and other production details. Regardless, there are likely many more titles that have been either lost or forgotten.
Although he has retired from teaching, Waugh will remain an advisor on the database. There are plans to have essays and blog posts accompanying certain titles. Waugh says he hopes that in the near future, he and other supervisors of the project will interview some of the filmmakers and post those clips on the website.
Moreover, there is an effort to try and make some of these lost or under-seen films streamable from the Internet. Canadians also have the opportunity to suggest new or marginal works that can be added to the database.
The project has blossomed partly due to Waugh’s knowledge and research of films about Canada’s LGBTQ communities. For his take on many of the offerings in this moving image database, one can read Waugh’s 2006 book, “The Romance of Transgression in Canada“. It explores many eras of Canadian filmmaking and the kinds of sexual representation that were found on (or hidden from) the big screen. The book’s back half contains a helpful encyclopedia of significant queer artists and filmmakers, mainstream to experimental, from around the country.
But while the database is comprehensive, it is also far from complete. A major challenge is finding information about films unattached to a distributor or that haven’t been publicly viewed in decades. In our conversation, Waugh shares with me his mission to find copies of films by Clint Alberta, a queer indigenous director who committed suicide in 2002. Although Alberta – whose birth name is Clint Morrill and is a native of that province – made films for the NFB, his documentaries are not in circulation on their website.
“Back around 2000, people knew about [Alberta] because he was a hot young filmmaker on the rise,” Waugh says. “Then he died. It’s very convenient to forget young filmmakers who haven’t provided access to their work.”
One of the aims of this database is to revitalize attention to films that have evaded much literary or academic scholarship. Many titles stem from regions of the country, like Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, where there are smaller film scenes.
“If you say to someone at the Toronto archive, ‘Have you seen Stubblejumper?’… They don’t know what you’re talking about,” Waugh says, referring to David Geiss’s docudrama about gay activist Doug Wilson.
When he joined the school’s downtown campus, Waugh was the only third faculty member of Concordia’s then-nascent film program. Throughout his tenure, Waugh taught many courses related to documentary, Canadian cinema, and sexual representation.
Beyond an already intimidating CV of published work and scholarly accomplishments, Waugh has been Concordia’s research chair in sexual representation and documentary film. Oh, and he also spearheaded the university’s minor in interdisciplinary studies in sexuality.
He says he considers teaching to be a relationship, and that it has been very exciting for him to keep tabs on what is happening in the cultural zeitgeist through his students.
“People are always asking me if the current generation is more politically aware,” he tells me. “My feeling is that it goes in cycles. There are moments when you feel very discouraged about students being really unaware of what’s going on. Then, you get a jolt… ‘Wow, that term paper was really good and raising issues I haven’t thought about.’ It makes you sit up and take note.”
Often, he went with his students to the Cinémathèque québécoise to view archival items that were unavailable to watch in the classroom. This tradition remained until his final year of teaching.
As a writer, Waugh finely balances a tone and style that can reach both an academic and curious cinephile audience. During his early years of teaching at Concordia, he worked as an impassioned film critic for “The Body Politic“. That seminal magazine covered issues affecting Canada’s LGBTQ communities during the 1970s and 1980s.
A replica of this balance between the intellectual and accessible can be found amidst the “Queer Film Classics” series Waugh co-edits with Matthew Hays. These book-long analyses of films made by and about LGBTQ people have examined more than a dozen titles, including C.R.A.Z.Y., Fire, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights.
Our conversation inevitably shifts to a film that will likely be considered a queer film classic in the near future: the Oscar-winning Moonlight.
“That’s an interesting case study, because it really has spoken to different worlds all at once,” Waugh says of Barry Jenkins’ triptych. “Maybe Moonlight is a case study in the way a queer film constituency can integrate with a black minority film culture and a broader film culture.”
Waugh loved Moonlight, although he says that he doesn’t get out to the movies as much as he would like. Nevertheless, he is a fixture at the weekly Cinema Politica screenings at Concordia.
It is fascinating to discover that the work that inspired Waugh during his PhD continue to make an imprint on his scholarly career. His PhD thesis focused on the work of Dutch documentary pioneer Joris Ivens. That filmmaker is also the subject of Waugh’s newest book, the 780-page “The Conscience of Cinema” – published in 2016, some 35 years after he completed his PhD.
“The Conscience of Cinema” was not Waugh’s first long-gestating project. Due to explicit nude images in his book “Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film From Their Beginnings to Stonewall“, that title went through numerous delays before its 1996 release.
“It used to get defaced in the Concordia library, and [the school would] have to replace it so many times,” he says of “Hard to Imagine“. “People were upset by it.”
Another enlightening but controversial publication, an essay titled “A Fag-Spotter’s Guide to Eisenstein,” re-examined the work of the famous gay Russian filmmaker from a queer perspective. One can find this piece in “The Fruit Machine“, Waugh’s collection of his essays and reviews about LGBTQ cinema.
Meanwhile, he is still working on new material, such as an anthology that will explore first-person media and confessionality.
As for his hopes for new film writers and teachers, Waugh says that there is still so much material for others to unearth and discover. “I hope that the new generation will break through boundaries that are there.”