Don Haig

Winnipeg , MB
Manitoba CA
December, 2001

Producer, editor. Eulogized upon his death as one of the most influential presences within Canadian cinema, Don Haig was remembered as a key editor during the formative sixties at the CBC, an independent Toronto-based producer during the seventies and eighties, and English studio kingpin at the NFB in the nineties. The eulogizers did not mention that this handsome, openly but quietly gay Winnipegger, happily partnered with Bill Schultz for 47 years, who started his career distributing and loving MGM musicals, also produced one of the momentous but sadly unreleased English Canadian queer features of the seventies, 125 Rooms of Comfort (1974).

One of the lost children of Canadian cinema, queer or straight, this low-budget but ambitious feature film showed apparently only once or twice and then met undeserved oblivion. 125 Rooms was directed by Patrick Loubert (b. 1947), a York-trained, queer-friendly pioneer of Canadian animation and co-founder in 1971 of the legendary Ottawa studio Nelvana. The film is about a dilapidated hotel in St. Thomas, Ont., the site for both a standup comedy gig at a stag party (by a has-been named “Johnny Canuck,” based on Loubert’s vintage Canadian comic strip hero), and various wheelerdealings around the sale of the place to rapacious US buyers. One co-owner, Billie, on leave from a mental hospital and scandalously queer, won’t go along with the sale and becomes a rather distinctive martyr for Canadian economic autonomy (metaphors of American imperialism were not unheard of in Canadian films of the 1970s). The rather heavy climax intercuts two scenes: the hotel MC introduces the "beautiful vivacious" new stripper to her rowdy and appreciative male audience; meanwhile outside the hotel other drunken patrons discover Billie in drag and prevent him from getting away, shouting "faggot!" They beat him up, rip off his wig, kick him when he is down in the grungy alleyway, douse him with beer, and leave him for dead—which suits the other co-owner and the buyers just fine. According to Loubert, Billie was basically Haig’s contribution to the film, a character based on a brilliantly outrageous queen character the filmmakers knew on Toronto Island, who had provided screen tests but seemed too unstable to count on for the project (Telephone 10 Dec. 2003).

Part of the blame for the film’s failure was attributed to CFDC interference (the funders kept removing the sex and violence scenes from the script, and Loubert and Haig basically restored them, including the queerbashing scene, on the set). But the interwoven plot lines are also somewhat murky, even in the context of 1970s art film narrative structure. One critic homophobically equated Canada’s colonized national identity with what he calls Billie’s "goofy sexual incompetence," responding to the climactic fatal queerbashing with the question: " Billy's transvestism an image of the total `feminisation' of the son and heir of the Canadian mansion, an expression of an unconscious desire to be raped?"(Fothergill 1975, 58). Rather than transposing a little too deftly the sexist myth of the woman who wants to be raped to the queer to wants to be bashed and in the same breath to the Canadian who wants to be colonized, he might have reflected on the silencing of embryonic queer cinemas, however conflicted, just as they were beginning to stir.

In his next career as Toronto producer, Haig was also behind the great queer hit of the eighties, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), and, during the final productive and influential civil servant phase of his career, supported emerging queer filmmakers and projects such as Anatomy of Desire (Jean-François Monette, 1995) and When Shirley Met Florence (Ronit Bezalel, 1994).