New doc recreates Edmonton's norm-busting Flashback nightclub

· The Pulse

A new documentary about Flashback, the long-closed Edmonton queer nightclub that's often referred to as the "Studio 54 of the Prairies," uses novel techniques to keep the story and club alive.

"I like to say 'I'm still in Grade 2,'" Peter Hays, Flashback director and the owner of Tangerine Productions Ltd., told Taproot. "Show and tell is what I do."

He and his brother, Matthew Hays, led the creative team for the film. The duo knew they didn't want to make a standard documentary with archival footage, still photographs, and talking-head interviews. Plus, when they successfully pitched the doc to TELUS they had yet to even secure archival footage from inside the club, which closed in 1991.

Eventually, the brothers did land archival footage (from consulting producer Patrick Monaghan, playwright Darrin Hagen, and Flashback creator John Reid), but their creative juices were already flowing. To show Flashback rather than tell, the filmmakers commissioned 3D graphics based on blueprints of the club. They also worked with Rob Browatzke, owner of Evolution Wounderlounge, to redecorate his club's interior into a Flashback facsimile for three days to allow for reenactments with 50 club-goers.

"We did auditions, and our people who judged the kids, the leads of our hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments, went to Flashback when they were young," Hays said. "They knew what they were looking for, and they knew how to create that place."

Hays added the doc is "about an energy and a time" rather than telling people about it. "Having a bunch of old guys like me talk about it for 90 minutes, that's not gonna work. The central piece of energy that we needed was to see club kids in the club."

But what's a dance sequence without music? After all, Flashback — which was located at 104 Street and 103 Avenue downtown — earned the "Studio 54 of the Prairies" nickname because of the music, too. The brothers, both from Edmonton but now living in Calgary (Peter) and Montreal (Matthew), again bridged the past and present by recording two disco tracks at Studio Bell (home of the National Music Centre) in Calgary with singer D'orjay. One is a cover of "So Many Men/So Little Time" by Miquel Brown; the second is an original called "Don't Stop Dancing," by Peter Hays, Ian Dillon, and Carson Dillon.

Music and nightlife might seem trivial to some. But Peter Hays said, especially for Flashback's run from 1974 to 1991, these components were critical.

"Gay culture went mainstream with the advent of disco music," he said. "That changed nightclub life; it changed queer culture. But at the same time, if you were gay, you couldn't show that anywhere in Edmonton without fear of reprisal, except for the occasional location like Flashback."

People dressed in vintage clothes dance in a nightclub with a checkered floor, spotlights, and disco balls.

Part of creating the Flashback documentary was reenacting the dance floor at the club. For this, director Peter Hays commissioned 50 contemporary club kids to wear period attire and dance inside a redecorated Evolution Wonderlounge. (Film still.)

What made Flashback special, Hays said, is that it was for both gay people and their friends at a time when straight people weren't welcome at gay clubs.

That segregation became an "inciting incident" for Reid, who created Flashback, Hays said. "John Reid went to a place called Club 70 … and he was turned away because the person at the door said 'You're not gay,'" he said. "That was shocking because, for him, this was his moment where he was basically announcing to the world 'I am gay.'"

That's when Reid decided to open Flashback and figured out how to make it work to include straight people who could hang without letting them take over the space. It's an early example of how queer clubs have become less dominated by gay men and more inclusive across all sexual and gender identities.

"You had to be cool with what was there when there were drag queens and excitement and people wearing nipple tape — it wasn't your average suburban bar," Hays said. "Some of (Reid's) gay members said, 'Hey, there's too many straight people. There's too many breeders here,' so he ended up doing a men's night on Thursdays that was really just for his gay clientele."

In sum, the club meant a lot of things to a lot of people. Flashback arrives at about the same time as the 40th anniversary of the first detection of HIV in Edmonton. HIV and AIDS took the lives of many in the city's queer community who were part of nightlife from the 1970s to 1990s. The Hays brothers wanted to tell this story before it's too late.

Peter recalled Reid's response when asked about the idea to make the film. "Look, Peter, let's do it now, because people are still alive and still remember the glory days of the club," Hays remembered Reid saying. "We lost a lot of people who went to the club (already)."

Reid's enthusiasm, as well as Hagen and Monaghan's, among others, is why Hays thinks the film punches above its weight.

"The doors just opened and we were able to make a film that looks much bigger than its budget because of all the help that we received from all different directions in the community," he said. "It was a film that everybody wanted to see made, and they wanted to help us make it."

What Hays calls "community screenings" take place June 14, June 15, and July 18 at Metro Cinema. Talkbacks follow each, and a portion of proceeds from the July showing will go to HIV Edmonton. Hays is also working on a fall festival run, with festivals in Berlin, Montreal, and Seattle locked in, as well as commercial distribution.

Another new film in this realm is Pride Vs. Prejudice: The Delwin Vriend Story, a documentary written and directed by Hagen about Vriend's battle against discrimination that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

For more of Edmonton's queer history, read about some recent additions to the City of Edmonton Archives and resources like the Edmonton Queer History Project and the Rainbow Storytelling Hub.