Government censors try to shut down Little Sister’s documentary at film fest

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VANCOUVER – The long arm of B.C.’s censor tried Wednesday to silence Thursday’s world premier of a documentary about a Vancouver gay and lesbian book store’s two-decade-long Supreme Court battle against book seizures and discrimination by Canada Customs.

Jim Deva, the bookseller who’s battled government for two decades for the rights of Canadians to read what they want, says targeting Aerlyn Weissman’s film “Little Sister’s vs. Big Brother” is nothing short of more government censorship.

At 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, half an hour after government offices closed, a deputy director of enforcement entered the Capitol Six theatre on Granville Street. He told staff the theatre would be fined if it showed the film.

The Attorney General’s office is claiming that the festival needs special permits to show the film, and is threatening to fine the theatre if it proceeds with the screening.

“It is totally insane. It is about control,” said Deva, who, with partner Bruce Smyth and manager Janine Fuller, have battled Canada Customs as far as the Supreme Court of Canada. “Censorship is about power and control. If the film classification board believes that stopping the showing of this film is going to protect the public from themselves, we have a classic example of censorship in action.”

“Little Sister’s vs. Big Brother” is supposed to have its world premiere at the Thursday night’s opening gala of the 14thAnnual Queer Film & Video Festival.

The bookstore serves Vancouver’s queer community, and the film documents its 20-year fight against Canada Customs’ systematic targeting of the bookstore with book seizures.

Deva called for a groundswell of support by the gay and lesbian community for Weissman’s film and against censorship. The film is due to screen at 7 p.m. but may be delayed by a possible demonstration. Festival officials, however, say the government has no jurisdiction over screenings by a private society.

“We’re a society, and we sell memberships to our festival. That enables us to show films as a private screening to our members, which exempts us from requiring film classifications,” says Jeff Rotin, board chair of the Vancouver Out On Screen Film and Video Society, which produces the film festival.

Out On Screen director of programming Michael Barrett said that it began back in May, when he obtained B.C., P-G classification for “Oliver Button is a Star”, an animated children’s film that will screen for free during the festival. He hadn’t heard anything else from them until Wednesday, one day before the festival.

“In our 14-year history, we’ve never been required to get this special permit,” Barrett said.

Film festivals across B.C. sell memberships to bypass government classification of films. In Vancouver the Vancouver International Film Festival uses the method, as does the Blinding Light Cinema, which shows films with controversial content to members. Membership is open to anyone 18 years or older.

“Evidently, Big Brother is at it again,” says Rotin. “This is discrimination and bullying, because of the content of our films. It’s 2002, and the queer community is still being oppressed. It doesn’t appear that we’ve made much headway.”

No one from the Attorney General’s office has actually seen the documentary, by award-winning filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman, director of such films as the National Film Board’s “Forbidden Love”.

Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium’s court battle is the single most important free speech case since the inception of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“This documentary provides an indispensable record of both the human and the legal elements of the landmark Little Sister’s censorship case,” Dixon said. “I expect that Little Sister’s vs. Big Brother will become a standard resource for activists, jurists and historians.”

One thousand people are expected at the screening. The Capitol 6 screening at 7 p.m. August 8th, is due to be followed by a panel discussion with Little Sister’s Jim Deva, manager Janine Fuller, book buyer Mark Macdonald, lawyer Joe Arvay, director Aerlyn Weissman, and producer Cari Green.

Since opening in 1983, Little Sister’s has been a target for bigots, bombings and book seizures. When Canada Customs began seizing book shipments bound for the store, owners Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth refused to submit to discrimination against the store—especially after fellow bookseller Celia Duthie ordered the same books and received them unimpeded.

In 1990, Little Sister’s, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and lawyer Arvay filed a statement of claim against Canada Customs disputing Customs’ powers to prohibit literary and artistic items at the border and against Customs’ discrimination against gay and lesbian material in particular. All along the way, director Weissman was there, recording the events with her camera.

Among the witnesses who spoke on behalf of Little Sister’s in the trial beginning October 11th, 1994 before the Supreme Court of B.C. were Pierre Berton, Jane Rule, and Sarah Schulman.

Justice Kenneth Smith ruled January 19th, 1996 that Canada Customs was incompetent and deplored the “systematic targeting” of Little Sister’s but failed to strike down the legislation allowing for book seizures.

In March of 2000, Arvay led the Little Sister’s case to the Supreme Court of Canada which, in December of that year, declared the Crown must prove in court the obscenity of any book prohibited by Customs.

Little Sister’s is the headline film in the 14th annual Queer Film & Video Festival, August 8 – 18, which will screen almost 190 films from across Canada and around the world in 45 screenings. Program details are available at

For further information or artist interview information, please contact Jeremy Hainsworth at 604-844-1615 or Little Sister’s at 604-669-1753. The Out on Screen & Video Society strongly encourages people who wish to see this film to show up at the Capitol 6 theatre on Granville Street. If the film is not shown a protest will take place at the theatre site. Tickets are still available from Little Sister’s until 4 p.m., or until they sell out.