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Winter Kept Us Warm

Winter Kept Us Warm

Trailblazing Canadian film Winter Kept Us Warm was made at a time when gay love definitely did not speak its name…

By Paul Gallant

In 1965, Everett Klippert, a Northwest Territories mechanic, was questioned by the police and told them that he was gay, had sex with men and was unlikely to change. Klippert was sent to prison indefinitely as a dangerous sex offender, a sentence the Supreme Court of Canada later upheld. The 1969 decriminalization of homosexuality under Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government was four years away – and those four years were an eternity.

It was also in 1965 that David Secter’s debut film Winter Kept Us Warm was released, and, looking back at what happened to Klippert, it’s no wonder that not a single character in it so much as whispers a word like “gay,” “homosexual” or “queer.” In fact, many people involved in the project, including the leads, did not realize that the story was about an older male student at the University of Toronto, Doug (John Labow), falling for a freshman, Peter (Henry Tarvainen). The closest the film comes to “outing” itself as a film about same-sex desire comes when Bev (Joy Fielding), Doug’s girlfriend, tells Doug, “If I didn’t know you better, I’d swear you and Peter were…” before trailing off.

That ellipse spoke volumes about the love that dared not speak its name in 1960s Canada.

Winter Kept Us Warm screened at festivals (it was the first Anglo-Canadian feature to screen at Cannes), got some good reviews (and some bad ones), and earned back the $8,000 it cost to make. But it was not edgy, like the 1960s films of, say, Kenneth Anger or Andy Warhol. It did not make gay men the butt of jokes or contain social instruction about what was wrong with gay people. Based on Secter’s own university-era crush on a fellow student, the story was personal and narrowly focused on its characters’ relationships and feelings, not their place in society.

For years it was difficult to find the film, but there’s been renewed interest. It’s been picked up for streaming by Canadian International Pictures (availability to be announced at a later date) and it’s the subject of the latest in the book series Queer Film Classics, edited by Matthew Hays and Thomas Waugh, released in May by McGill-Queen’s University Press. The Winter Kept Us Warm companion book was written by curator, programmer and writer Chris Dupuis, who chronicles the climate in which the film was made, the strange journey of getting it made, what it achieved and Secter’s career in the following decades. 

“I saw a screening of the film in the early 2000s in Toronto, and honestly I wasn’t that into it and forgot about it. It didn’t resonate with me,” says Dupuis in an interview with IN. “Then there was another screening about 10 years later and an older gay male friend urged me to see it again. Seeing it with a little more wisdom and understanding of the history, it read for me in a completely different way. I realized it also aligned with an experience I had with a guy in my college dorm as well.”

Secter has lived in the United States for decades, working mostly in theatre, and moved to Hawaii with his husband in 2019. He admits that it would be difficult to make a modern version of the film. Winter Kept Us Warm gets at how his characters don’t have a language for what they’re going through, and if they could meditate on it at all, it would be taboo to say anything aloud, and impossible to access any information about it. Today, any young person can find peers and get questions answered about sexual orientation and gender identity with a few Google searches.

“It [the film’s premise] wouldn’t work, not in the Western world,” says Secter in an interview with IN. “Maybe in Africa or the Middle East, but certainly not in the West, where the subject matter has been so open for so long.”

Secter, who was a 22-year-old English major when he made the film, would not publicly come out as gay until much later, and for the next 10 years he identified as bisexual. But the film’s initial success did motivate him to pursue a career in film and in the arts more broadly.

“It was certainly a life-changing experience that convinced me to spend my life in the creative field. I hadn’t realized that filmmaking was a possible career. As Chris writes, there were almost no movies [about the gay experience] being made in Canada at that time – you could count them on the fingers of one hand. So making the film against all odds, with a team of students who were ready to do it for little compensation, that gave me a lot of confidence. I was so eager,” Secter says. “You think that somebody who made a movie that clearly had some autobiographical elements would have more gay awareness. Yet very few people at the time asked me about my own sexuality or suggested that I must be gay if I made this movie. The subject was so taboo.” 

Secter made three more feature films, although none of them had the impact of Winter Kept Us Warm; he was the subject of a 2005 documentary, directed by his nephew, called The Best of Secter and the Rest of Secter.

There were definitely viewers who “got it” at the time. Gay critics (closeted, of course) knew very well what the movie was about. The Ontario Film Review Board, a government-appointed censorship agency that had to clear films before they could be publicly screened in the province, almost rejected the film, ultimately giving it its most severe rating, Restricted. 

Any contemporary viewer who has seen a few queer films – even just Brokeback Mountain or Moonlight – should be able to pick up on the codes for “gay, gay, gay” in Winter Kept Us Warm. There’s the furtive glances, the seemingly unprompted jealousy, the guy-on-guy tussles in newly fallen snow and, of course, the gratuitous nudity of an after-game shower scene, with naked butts and some friendly back-washing. 

“I was determined to get bare asses in there, at least,” says Secter. “It was essential, and none of the actors seemed to have a problem with it.”

There’s an interesting tension in Dupuis’ book between the naive, clamped-down world of 1965 Toronto and Dupuis’s modern queer sensibility. He came of age in the 1990s, when the growing numbers of people coming out and demanding rights, combined with anger and fear about the AIDS crisis, put sharper edges on 2SLGBTQI+ culture.

“When I was at university, queer politics were just so aggressively in your face,” says Dupuis. “There wasn’t a lot of subtlety in the media that was being made at that point. And that’s where I developed my understandings of queerness and queer media and how to read stuff. With the films of Gregg Araki and Derek Jarman, there is no ‘read.’ You don’t have to struggle to find the queerness in them because it’s visibly there.”

But in this post-post-post-1990s era, perhaps there is more room for subtlety. Maybe not in films with contemporary settings, where finding a barrier to break is a real challenge, but in period pieces. Winter Kept Us Warm, rather than being considered as the first English-language Canadian film to grapple with homosexual attraction, should be considered as historic text. Something more akin to Ammonite, a lesbian romance released in 2020 but set in the 1840s, rather than a forerunner of Araki’s 1992 New Queer Cinema classic, The Living EndWinter Kept Us Warm doesn’t have the stars or the stellar sound quality of a new film, but it provides the pleasure of seeing life in a simpler time, reminding us of our freedoms and the complications these freedoms bring us.

PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto. His debut novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, published by Acorn Press, is out now.

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