Queer joy has become a buzzword in recent years. It’s the idea that happiness can be found in being queer — a happiness found in Jen Markowitz’s feature film directorial debut “Summer Qamp.”
“Summer Qamp” follows a group of kids at Camp fYrefly, a summer camp for queer youth in rural Alberta, Canada. Melding intimate interviews about the experiences and perspectives of some campers alongside footage of them challenging fears at camp, learning about the queer community and bantering over breakfast, Markowitz’s documentary offers a poignant glimpse into a radically transformative summer camp.
“If anybody had ever asked me what my dream project would be, I would have essentially described to them this film,” Markowitz said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I didn’t think twice before putting all my eggs in this basket, and it’s really paid off for me in terms of being a queer person as much as being a filmmaker.”
While Markowitz has extensive experience in Canada’s TV industry, filmmaking was a more recent turn of events — one that has transformed their allyship.
“Working in TV, it’s usually one and done, and it’s very formulaic. You don’t always have the storytelling, you don’t always have the agency to craft authentically,” Markowitz said. “Having the opportunity to take care of these campers and their families in that way, it really strengthened me. I’m already a pain-in-the-ass political queer, but it really amped that up quite a bit.”
Growing up, Markowitz wasn’t always comfortable in their own skin. They would go to the movie theater after school in pursuit of queer films, whether it was the 1999 film “But I’m a Cheerleader” or Lisa Cholodenko’s 1998 film “High Art.” While they loved and still love those movies, queer cinema was limited to portrayals of hardships.
“What I wanted to do differently with this film was to give these campers who were my age when I was seeing those films something to look at that would allow them to believe and to know unequivocally that they could have a joyful, and most importantly, a long life,” Markowitz said.
“We don’t have a history of trans elders, we don’t have a ton of them around,” they explained. “It was me wanting to invest in the community overall as much as me wanting to make a creative piece.”
Keeping the campers company from beginning to end was an unforgettable experience for Markowitz, who relates a lot to the day-one campers.
“It made me rethink where I am in my life, how I grew up, who I thought I was then,” they said. “It was as much of a journey of self-exploration for me as it was a journey about authentically telling these kids’ stories.”
Telling the stories of the campers in “Summer Qamp” wasn’t without its challenges, but these were challenges that Markowitz welcomed with open arms. The campers at Camp fYrefly are vulnerable as queer youth, which meant that their families and the people that work at the camp were even more protective of them and their stories.
“I was really glad to be given the opportunity to prove myself to them because that showed me that they really cared about their safety,” Markowitz said. “It also gave me an opportunity to think of continuous ways of showing that their safety was important to me as well.”
Whether it was a colored bracelet system to indicate comfortability with being captured on camera or editing in post, the team worked diligently to build trust.
“If you see someone standing across from you with a camera lens, you might think you’re on camera when really they might be doing a close-up on somebody,” Markowitz said. “There were a lot of check-ins along the lines of that. We also did several rounds of, in post, making sure anybody was blurred if anybody had happened to get caught in the back of a frame.”
Markowitz emphasizes true allyship in the making of “Summer Qamp,” a project that they hope can comfort queer youth.
“Ultimately, I want this film to end up in front of the kids who need it, and I want them to take away from it a feeling of affirmation. I want them to feel seen; I want them to understand that there is a huge community that will care for them and will 100% show up for them,” Markowitz stressed.
Markowitz returned to Camp fYrefly this past summer and intends to keep coming back. With so much of queer history undocumented, “Summer Qamp” is Markowitz’s time capsule of community space.
“I think what’s really important to me about this piece is that it’s a record of existence that is now in the world. I want to… contribute to the collective histories of queer people,” Markowitz said. “I really hope that I’ve done that with this film.”