Nestled in rural Alberta, Canada, is a summer camp — Camp fYrefly, affectionately known as “qamp.” Serving queer youth, Camp fYrefly is a space where kids can be kids, free from the marginalization they experience in heteropatriarchal society. This energizing community space is the focus of Jen Markowitz’s debut documentary film “Summer Qamp,” which screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
At Camp fYrefly, the kids do more than just typical camping activities — though they enjoy those too, partaking in deep conversations in the cabins to stargazing in the fields. The kids get the opportunity to talk to elders in the community, exchange clothes and stories and explore what intersectionality means to them — in the process finding a safe space to truly embrace themselves. Even if the kids are a bit antsy at the start, their enthusiasm and excitement soars as time passes and the anxiety ebbs away.
For many of these kids, Camp fYrefly is their first time living in a space surrounded entirely by others like them. It’s gratifying to see how empowering it is for the campers to be in such a profoundly important community space. And even beyond the summer haven it provides, Qamp proves to be transformational, inspiring some kids to come out to their parents.
“Summer Qamp” masterfully weaves a narrative that not only centers Camp fYrefly’s campers but excavates the broader coming-of-age experience of queer youth. In zoning in on a small group of campers, the documentary allows viewers to accompany them on their journey at Camp fYrefly, welcoming audiences into their lives and experiences as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
The film accomplishes all of this while the kids remain comfortable on camera — a feat considering how personal some of these narratives are. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that “Summer Qamp” took great care in making sure the film’s subjects felt right at home, with or without the cameras on them, a refreshing alternative to the sometimes voyeuristic flare found in other documentaries.
The campers don’t just discuss what being queer means to them — after all, identities don’t exist in isolation. Whether it’s adoption, immigration or being a part of another marginalized group, “Summer Qamp” captures the nuance within these myriad conversations and delves into what being part of the LGBTQ+ community means for a diverse array of people. The kids learn and grow alongside each other, giving and getting advice all the while finding community in each other that they might not have entirely back home.
What makes “Summer Qamp” all the more impactful is the greater reality of how queer youth has been belittled by bigoted figureheads at large. Whether its overarching claims of a sexual agenda or even more sinister claims of a queer conspiracy of indoctrination, homophobes and transphobes have long made queer kids a target for harassment and bigotry.
Seeing the campers in “Summer Qamp” sneak off to dye each others’ hair, dance and prance to MUNA and find solace in vulnerability, then, is one of the most eloquent, indirect rebuttals to all of these sensationalist claims. Queer kids are just kids — nothing more, nothing less. The documentary is an inside look at just how much joy can be found in being queer, and is a comforting time capsule of all that can be experienced in a protected space like that of Camp fYrefly.
As camp workers and campers alike chant “queer joy” together, “Summer Qamp” closes with an overwhelming sense of warmth and solidarity. The apprehension that the kids felt at the start of their journey has washed away, with “Summer Qamp” not only documenting this generation of campers at Camp fYrefly but a beautiful safe space for queer kids. “Summer Qamp” is the unabashedly queer, coming-of-age documentary of the summer.