TIFF 2023 Review: Jen Markowitz’s “Summer Qamp” Lets Kids Be Kids

There is a slight irony at the heart of “Summer Qamp” when it’s clear that the counselors at Camp FYrefly in Alberta, Canda are deeply invested in creating a safe space for the kids who stay there, yet in extending that space to the expanse of a movie theater, director Jen Markowitz largely has to leave them off-screen. You briefly see the camp’s director Pam telling those assembled at the start of the summer, “I can tell there’s a lot of fear and a lot of excitement,” and Marshall, the artist-in-residence at the camp for queer, nonbinary and trans teens, leading a karaoke session, but as they admit, “Our job is to get them to be kids again,” requiring them to get out of the way as much as possible.

“Summer Qamp” refreshingly lets the campers speak for themselves, some being veterans that have started their transition one year and completing it over their summers spent in Alberta and others first-timers, only at the start of their journey and finding out new things about themselves as they go. Rather than load the film up with the set-up that has created such a special environment – the camp is a part of a larger initiative of the University of Alberta, which has an entire FYrefly Institute for Gender and Sexual Diversity – or lean on the adults running the place for interviews, Markowitz does let the kids be kids in a no-frills approach that still manages to be bracing when it’s likely that the audience is just as unaware of what the teens are going through as they are and they’re allowed to talk so openly and eloquently about it.

Naturally, there’s archery and climbing rock walls and petting ponies at Camp FYrefly to observe, but some of the simplest activities become the most unexpectedly moving, such as when campers are asked to bring their old clothes from when they identified with one gender that could be used by someone from the opposite end of the spectrum as they go through their transition or converse with the Rainbow Elders of Calgary, who end up doing as much listening as speaking to the teens about their experience. The film’s concise 80-minute run time may be padded out slightly with dance montages, but Markowitz takes advantage of time in another way as one can start to see the impact of being around other teens who may present differently than they currently identify but have a sense of who they are has on all those at FYrefly. Although some describe painful moments they had on their way there, “Summer Qamp” is joyful while feeling authentic, careful not to ever feel conclusive, but capturing the little personal epiphanies that will make its subjects more comfortable in their own skin. In chronicling a transformative experience for those who attend Camp FYrefly, “Summer Qamp” is bound to have the same effect on audiences and when one camper Ren, a 16-year-old trans masc, says that they first identified as queer when reading about others like them in a book, it seems likely this will be such a revelatory text for so many others.

“Summer Qamp” will screen again at the Toronto Film Fest on September 10th at 4:30 pm at the Scotiabank 12.

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