Colette Vosberg Talks about Unusually Normal, Her Documentary on Three Generations of Queer Women in Canada

World premiering at the upcoming Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto, Colette Vosberg’s documentary feature Unusually Norman brilliantly portrays “the gayest family” in Canada that spans three generations of queer women. CHOPSO takes the opportunity to speak with Colette about her queerly brilliant documentary feature before its world premiere.

When and how did the project Usually Normal begin for you as a filmmaker?

CV: It was very random!  I was a follower of Jann Arden on Twitter and was very interested in her advocacy work called #horseshit.  She is working to ban shipping inhumanely beautiful draft horses, who can sometimes sit on a tarmac with no food or water for two days before arriving in Japan where they are slaughtered and eaten for sushi.  I tweeted her and said I was a film producer and I’d be interested in filming a documentary about it.  I didn’t hear from Jann but a few days later, I heard from Karen Ford who was looking for a film producer to do a documentary about her family.  It wasn’t until a few months later that I put two and two together that Karen was also a Jann Arden fan and saw my tweet on twitter!  She researched and found me and reach out.

I found Karen’s story very compelling – and the women were all so lovely and enthusiastic to have a documentary made about them.  At first, the idea was very superficial – they had been “shopped” previously as Canada’s Gayest Family by a reality show producer but went nowhere. RuPaul was super popular and Madison, the youngest of the generations were friends with drag queens and we thought it would be fun to show case the family as little wacky and fun with drag queens adding to the mix.  That went nowhere.  OUTtv was interested but their license fees were so low that I couldn’t make anything for it.  I was about to give up when Karen started opening up about her family dynamics.   When I discovered the real story about the family, I immediately started to develop a pitch deck conveying a truly authentic story about them.  

The “gayest” family in Canada

A member of the family was also documenting themselves… how did you work with her in your making of the doc?

CV: Karen Ford is definitely a force to reckon with!  She got it into her head to document her family and around 2016 or so, bought a SONY camera, some tapes and started filming them having conversations, mainly around the kitchen table.    After a couple of years, Karen realized that she didn’t really know how to put together a documentary and all the tapes went into a box.  She then focused on using her phone to record family interviews and started posting on Facebook and then moved to TikTok where they found a huge audience and followers for their videos.  The tik tokers absolutely adored the Grandmas and their views exploded practically overnight.  

The bonus was when the grandma’s dug into their storage and uncovered priceless 16 mm film footage – Linda with various years of her family while married to her husband and Janice having the Gay Olympics footage shot in Australia.  I couldn’t believe what I had when I had it digitally transferred.

When Karen told me she had all this footage, I was keenly interested in seeing it.  Because the family was filmed in their home or on vacation in an intimate setting, they spoke very freely about their thoughts and feelings as Karen asked them questions.  It had a home video feel which lent to the authenticity of their conversation and story. I immediately knew I had to use the footage even if it was bad quality because I believed the audience would feel like they were voyeurs as they watched an extraordinary family share their innermost thoughts about what its like to be gay, living as lesbians and revealing how they outted themselves to live more freely as their true selves. 

Karen and I collaborated very closely throughout the process.  She wrote and shared past journals of events from her life and then I built questions from those writings.  There was a lot of family trauma and guilt that happened because of homophobia and family verbal abuse.  So much of it we couldn’t tell because of either personal privacy or simply didn’t have the time to tell it in 98 minutes.  I asked Karen to view the rough cut to get her feedback – it was important that I got their story right and felt Karen deserved to be part of the filmmaking process.  I showed the film to the whole family at fine cut to get their feedback and overall it worked out well.

Tell us a bit about your journey of financing the documentary and getting it distributed via OutTV.

CV: In Canada, funding is triggered by broadcasters greenlighting a project.  The financing is usually made up of a broadcaster license fee, and then we have for television content, the Canada Media Fund (CMF) which is a government agency that provides an “envelope” of funds to Canadian broadcasters.  The broadcaster then allocates funding for selected projects to producers as top up license fees.  Broadcasters are providing a platform for audiences to view content, which triggers federal and provincial tax credits based on labor spend.  Usually there is a small shortfall so there is a producers investment and we also hope to recoup it from future foreign sales or there are other private funding agencies that can be applied to for funding.  

OUTtv is a small broadcaster who can’t afford huge license fees so the budgets are extremely small, causing the producer to be very resourceful when making their project.  OUTtv supported the project from the very beginning but the first time I pitched it, they could only offer $18,000 for a license fee and they didn’t have a CMF envelope.  I couldn’t make it with that and tried other Canadian broadcasters with no takers.  Then when I re-developed the story to what it is now, it was a new fiscal funding year and because I knew the funding system so well, I proposed a business plan that tapped into accessing Canada Media Fund and tax credits.   As it turned out, OUTtv was able to offer a higher licence fee and they had received a CMF envelope which allowed the budget to go a little higher, and tax credits based created a realistic budget and finance plan.  I don’t mind saying that the budget was just under $250k and I think I did a lot with it to make a unique and wonderful story.

My background is in business affairs so I was able to put together the budgets, financing and prepare all of the funding applications.   I wore many hats on this project – producer, line producer, project manager, post production supervisor and marketing.  Most importantly however,  I’ve created my first feature film as Writer and Director and I’m so proud of the film achievements so far.

Was there a most memorable moment in making the documentary?

CV: We shot all of the interviews over four days at Karen and Cathy’s home they had renovated and planned to sell but were AirBnB renting it until it sold.  They cleared the renting schedule for our production location and we created a “studio” setting where we interviewed all of the women either individually or in groups.  It was an intense four days that was sometimes emotionally draining because of the shit they had gone through in their lives due to homophobia and were re-living it all over again.  My dog Harley was on set and served as an emotional support dog who proved to be invaluable for them.  The trust these women gave me was awe inspiring.  Linda even said on camera that she had “bared her soul, which she had never done before” and it made me feel very humble.   

On the last day, all seven women were there, the crew consisting of DOP, 2nd Cam, Sound recorder, Set Dec person, myself and Harley had wrapped production.  Cathy had bought roasted chicken and we were all in the kitchen preparing our last dinner together.  At one point, I came in from outside and found the Sound Mixer carving the chicken, the DOP and Cam assist helping set the table and everyone was talking together like one big happy family.  My heart was so full at that moment. 

Can you talk about your embracing of incorporating the family’s social media footage into the documentary and how did you conceptualize it?

CV: The tik tok posts are rich in story and the viewer comments are positive , which were elements that both Karen and I wanted in the film. It added another layer of access to this openly public lesbian family willing to share their life with anyone who wants to look in.  My editor, David New came up with a brilliant idea of recording the comments as he scrolled through and moved his mouse to emphasize the comments as the video played.  I thought the technique created an interesting and stylized way in telling their story through a method audiences could relate to from their own social media experience.

One of the challenges with a documentary like this, is how to avoid only having talking heads.  It was my intent to mix up visual textures to create a journey for the audience.  We have home video’s, tons of photo’s from all the women, 16 mm film and then animated moments.  We didn’t have visual materials for stories from the past or because being gay was taboo, photo’s of places weren’t taken, such as gay bars.  I decided to hire Bee Video to create animation to help illustrate moments of dialogue.  

And then there is Errors and Omissions insurance with insurance companies risk adverse.  Some of the photos we received from the family had other people in them causing personal privacy issues to overcome.  I didn’t want a bunch of blurred faces throughout the film, so one way around it was to disguise them.   The animator was able to convert the photo’s into drawings and then manipulate facial features to obscure their identity.  It was designed to add more visual textures in the hopes of making the film more interesting to watch.

As I know you’re a sis straight woman… how did you incorporate your own perspective in that of the “gayest family in Canada?”

CV: At the very beginning before committing to the project, I asked the whole family if they’d rather a queer person make the film and their answer was no.  They thought I’d bring a curiosity to what its like to be gay to their story.  For me, this experience has given me the opportunity to delve deeper into myself and for that, I’ve very grateful.

Are you going to more festivals with Unusually Normal and when is the official broadcast premiere?

CV: It’s always been the plan to do a festival run.  The film will have it’s World Premiere on May 26/24 at Inside Out Film Festival held in Toronto, which is very exciting.  I’ve just received news that its been invited to the another Canadian queer film festival this coming fall.  I’m hoping it will be accepted into international film festivals as well.  OUTtv has a 1 hour cut down version entitled “Our Gay Family”, as well as “Unusually Normal” feature length to broadcast.  I’m not sure when they’ll air it  – I think they are waiting to see how the festival circuit plays out but assuming sometime in the fall.

Do you have an upcoming project you’re working on?

CV: OUTtv is so pleased with Unusually Normal that they commissioned another documentary currently entitled “Swing One Way or Another.”  We follow three individuals story about gender assignment.  Each person is in a different moment of gender transition which makes for a natural story arc.  One of the subjects is a burlesque dancer and we’ll take their dance as a form to help tell each ones story artistically.  It will be my second feature film as Writer and Director with a teeny, tiny budget and a big heart to tell it. 

Get tickets to the world premiere of Unusually Normal on May 26, 2024, in Toronto now!

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Author: Quentin Lee

Quentin Lee is an international filmmaker of mystery.

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