The new documentary The Fruit Machine draws its name from a machine developed to identify gay men (derogatorily known as “fruits”). The film explores how this machine was used as a weapon in a four-decade antigay witch hunt in Canada. When the government poured thousands of dollars into testing for homosexuals within the military during the Cold War, thousands of public servants and military members had their privacy invaded and their careers ruined. This film offers survivors a new and powerful voice.
Filmmaker Sarah Fodey discusses how the film doesn't shy away from tough truth while sharing hope and healing.
The Advocate: Why did you want to tell this story? And why now?
Sarah Fodey: Sixteen years ago, I sat in the well-appointed Ottawa home of a stranger named George Hartsgrove. He was sharing his vision for the first Canadian gay and lesbian retirement home and how it was destined to be a failure. He called himself ahead of his time; the cohort of men and women that he was marketing to were the same group that had their sexuality driven underground during the “fruit machine era.” How could they be comfortable living in a rainbow flag-adorned brownstone in the heart of Ottawa’s gay village?
That was the first time I had heard of the fruit machine, and there has rarely been a day since that I haven’t thought about it. It has occupied my brain, my heart, and my professional development slate. I couldn’t believe that this happened, and for the length of time that it happened (from the late 1950s through early 1990s) and how it was largely an untold story. The shock of it all has softened for me over the years, but it’s still palpable.
But the timing wasn’t right to tell this story until now. Now there is the political will and climate — and the resolve — that the story arc was always missing. I wanted the film to capture a sense of justice for the purge survivors — something they have been advocating for decades. It was important to me to include not only the government of Canada’s acknowledgment of this wrongdoing, but the national apology. The survivors never thought they would live long enough to hear the words “We’re sorry.” Two small words that have the power to heal. I also am happy that the film was able to capture the settlement in principle that was reached in the class action lawsuit. It’s the largest settlement in the history of the world for LGBT discrimination.
Were you hesitant at all to make this documentary — did you feel any fear about taking on the subject matter?
I was never hesitant to tell this story, not once. Call it blind passion, perhaps. I’ve been so invested in this story and in the outcomes for the purge survivors that the only fear I felt and still do is that there will be purge survivors who don’t like the film. It’s so important to me to tell their stories authentically. It’s the very least of what they deserve.
What surprised you most about the survivors’ stories?
When I first started researching this film, I was simply shocked and appalled that this happened, especially in Canada, and for the length of time that it did. This is recent history. And with every new survivor our research unearthed, their story was remarkably similar to the ones I had heard before. This pattern of haunting sameness formed. Shared details of dimly lit interrogation rooms, repetitive questioning, and manipulative dialogue. Military or civil servants, the 1950s or the early 1990s, it was the same. This was a precision-run campaign of discrimination. But what surprised me the most was what I learned far beyond these men and women losing their careers. In fact, for many, losing their jobs was the least of what they endured directly because of this campaign. Poverty, homelessness, having to go back in the closet, substance abuse, gay aversion therapy, sexual assaults, and for some, suicide. The consequences of this campaign, as one of our survivors captures perfectly in the film, was a scenario from a horror story.
This exclusive clip shows how the fruit machine works.
These tests that involved showing provocative images and measuring pupil dilation reminded me of A Clockwork Orange. Are these methods far from the “conversion therapy” tactics still used in certain Canadian provinces today?
I can’t speak to details being practiced today in Canada regarding conversion therapy. I would like to believe that the sense of abject violence has lessened over time as society and science continue to evolve and beliefs and perceptions shift that ultimately lead to legislative change, but I could be wrong. It’s shocking to me that in 2018 we are still dealing with this, still fighting against conversion therapy. That there are still doctors who believe in this “science” is ludicrous. And most Canadians would be shocked to know this therapy is still practiced today and that our health care system pays for it. Perhaps I have the topic of my next documentary film.
How did the survivors find hope after being subjected to this witch hunt?
The survivors that we interviewed are incredibly resilient people. Most invested in the hope that one day a sense of justice would come in the form of a national apology and redress for what they endured. And now that this hope has been realized, powerful, healing outcomes are surfacing. Most lived in silence and solitude not knowing how many others were affected, but now they are being brought together, united in their shared experiences. Many have formed new and renewed friendships and alliances. They have created social media support groups and chat forums. They really have empowered themselves and found a sense of peace, however small. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
What do you hope viewers learn?
I want people to be informed. This is not something we learn in Canadian history books, but we should. I want people to sit up in their seats and think, This is not the Canada I know, or, How could I have not heard about this until now? I want to elicit passion and arouse political curiosity. I want people to go home and Google the We Demand an Apology Network and commit to talking about it in their own communities.
I also want people to cry and laugh in parts of this film — laugh at the ridiculousness of what was being carried out by the government, and also laugh because many of these survivors are funny — very funny. They have used humor as a way to cope, I suspect. And it’s worked. They are magnetic. You want to hear more from them because they make you laugh on the heels of making you cry. It’s a beautiful combination.
In terms of contemporary relevance, I don’t believe you have to identify as LGBTQ+ to care about this story, as discrimination and the “othering” of large groups is, sadly, relevant in today’s society. We are living in a time where heightened vigilance is mandatory. Attacks on minority groups are still being fueled at the highest levels of society and government in Canada and the United States.
How do you hope this film changes Canadian culture?
My hope is this film will positively contribute to the national dialogue concerning the oppression and violence against the LGBTQ+ community. I’ve always believed that power and positive change comes from educated minds, and if this film can play a small role in getting this story out to wider audiences to inform and educate, to hopefully challenge opposing or resistant minds, then I will be extremely satisfied in the work we have done and eternally grateful to the brave men and women who shared their painful experiences with us on camera — which is never an easy thing to do.
The Fruit Machine is screening Friday, at the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival in Toronto. The festival runs through Sunday.