Filmmaker Jen Markowitz on building trust with queer teens in doc 'Summer Qamp'

TORONTO — With their documentary "Summer Qamp," Jen Markowitz puts on screen something that's far less radical than it seems: queer and transgender teens just being teens.

The lovingly rendered portrait of chaotic queer joy and gender euphoria, which premiered Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival and screens again on Sunday, was made possible by the relationship Markowitz built with their subjects.

"It really came a little bit at a time, but then once they trusted me, it was like a watershed of openness on camera," Markowitz said ahead of the festival.

The film immerses itself in the lives of a group of teens as they arrive at Camp fYrefly, a summer camp in Alberta for LGBTQ+ youth. For the first time, they are surrounded by people who share their identity and the connection affords them a level of gleeful freedom that can be hard to come by for young people pushed to the social margins.

It took months of interviews before camp started for Markowitz to build enough trust to tell these stories, they said.

"They were really wary of me for quite a while," Markowitz added.

"But once we landed and hit the ground running at camp, I think they saw that I was there to take part in camp as much as I was to do my job."

It also helped that they were a queer grown-up, an openly non-binary filmmaker who worked as a producer on "Canada's Drag Race" and directed episodes of kids' variety show "The Fabulous Show with Fay and Fluffy."

"I couldn't ever really picture it when I was a kid," they said of queer adulthood.

"I pictured a very normative existence. Even up until a few years ago, I thought: 'I'm going to have to tone it down at some point and be a normal person.'"

Talking to the teens about their feelings of uncertainty and assuring them there was hope for a successful adulthood of being true to themselves, opened the doors to communication, they said.

The kids talk to Markowitz about their identities, their fears, their hopes. But they also just live their lives in front of the cameras, inviting the audience into their circle.

In one scene, several kids are outdoors, chattering away as they delightedly dye a boy's hair bright pink. In another, kids sit in the mess hall making origami.

"When we were doing that scene, it really hit me that I'd never seen kids just being kids: trans kids just sitting around just doing nothing," Markowitz said. "That's what we need more of. Just let them be kids."

In another memorable scene, a camp participant is surrounded by his fellow campers, and sends a text message to his parents coming out to them as trans. When his mom doesn't immediately respond to the message, the other campers provide support.

"There wasn't anything that ended up off limits," Markowitz said. "I think that that was a product of my building trust with them beforehand."

This year, Markowitz was invited back to Camp fYrefly, not as a documentarian but as an artist-in-residence. They taught filmmaking workshops and storytelling workshops and caught up with some of the kids featured in the doc, which was filmed last summer.

"It was incredibly special to see them show up a year older. Some of them have gone on hormone therapy or HRT (hormone replacement therapy). They're just growing up into these extremely vibrant and brave teenagers," they said.

"It was beyond words, how rewarding it was."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2023.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press