Backstage Past: Porn protest on Granville Strip

Super 8 film serves as time capsule for Granville Street circa 1981

“It was July 1981, and I was a photographer working for Eaton’s in their advertising department,” recalls 66-year-old Hans Sipma. “I’d gone for lunch, and walking down Granville Street I saw the protesters outside the theatre. I went back to the office where I had my Super 8 camera, grabbed a few rolls of film and started shooting.”

The controversial film Caligula, a big budget historical drama intercut with scenes of hardcore sex and violence and given an X-rating by film censors, had begun its theatrical run in Vancouver. But not in the sleazy confines of an X-rated movie house, where in those pre-Internet days and before home video cassette rental made adult films widely accessible, but in a mainstream cinema on theatre row — right in the downtown heart of Vancouver.

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And the Towne Cinema at 919 Granville St. was ground zero where that summer a Vancouver evangelical group gathered to protest outside the theatre, calling on the premier and attorney general of British Columbia to ban the film for violating the community standards of decency and good taste.

What Sipma captured as his camera rolled makes not only for an early example of citizen journalism years before mobile phone cameras were ubiquitous but a remarkable record of street life during an extraordinary event on what appears to be an otherwise ordinary day on Granville Street. He would simply title his documentary film Protest.

In the film, while onlookers and passersby interact with the protesters gathered in front of the cinema they deemed showing a pornographic film, Protest reaches its own climax of a sort when a near-fight breaks out between one flop-sweat protester and an onlooker who calls him a dogmatist.

“I basically started filming these little conversations and arguments,” says Sipma, recalling the scene from his Gastown photography studio. “In a way, nobody took notice of me or acted like they were on camera, I don’t think they realized I was recording sound.”

Featured at the beginning of the film, Bernice Gerard, spokeswoman for United Citizens for Integrity appears. “I asked her if she’d say something for the camera. It was a Super 8 movie camera with a big microphone boom on it, and she thought I was with the media and immediately went on with her bit you see at the beginning of the film.”

 

 

Hollywood central casting could not have provided a better character for Sipma’s film than that of the real life “Church Lady” Bernice Gerard. Once named the most influential religious figure in B.C. by the Vancouver Sun, Gerard dressed like a prim school marm from the 1950s and possessed a hectoring voice not unlike Vancouver Canucks ex-coach Marc Crawford during an angry post-game press conference.

Well remembered for her appearances on community television for her Sunday faith-based TV show, she’d been a one-time city councillor who gained notoriety in July 1977 leading an army of concerned churchgoers and pill box-hatted ladies, dressed in their Sunday best and clutching their bibles, down the UBC bluffs to the shores of Wreck Beach, where they protested the “immodesty” of nude sunbathers there.

In Protest, it’s remarkable to watch as Gerard’s picketers debate with pedestrians about morals and free speech, and even the validity of God right on the streets of Granville. But it’s the other details captured, from the fashions of those dressed to the period vehicles and old Granville Street businesses in the background that make Protest such an interesting time capsule of Vancouver in 1981.

“As I shot it, I didn’t recognize anybody else aside from Gerard. I still don’t know who they were. They were just people on the street. I’ve never seen them since,” Sipma says.

His film sat on his shelf for years, showing it occasionally at home on a projector to amuse friends or those at family gatherings. But in recent years, Sipma had the film transferred and uploaded the video online where it caught the attention of the Vancouver Archives, who now feature the film on its YouTube Channel after Sipma donated the negative.

When asked how Gerard (who died in 2008) would have regarded the current state of Granville Street where young club-goers drunkenly revel in the city’s “entertainment district” and most of the cinemas of “Theatre Row” gone and renovated into nightclubs, Sipma laughs. “She was a pretty straight lady. Gosh, I don’t know what she’d think.”

Today, Caligula is more remembered as a bad film than anything particularly titillating. The Granville Street preachers can still be found at the corner of Georgia Street, loudly admonishing on the wages of sin as pedestrians dart past with their shopping bags. Vancouverites are now more likely to protest restaurants than cinemas, and it’s difficult to imagine a film causing such controversy that it would move those out to the streets to protest.

On a recent Saturday night, I walk by the old Towne Cinema on Granville —  now Joe’s Apartment nightclub — and ask the doorman outside checking IDs, “Is Caligula is playing tonight?”

He shakes his head and names the local cover band performing that evening, oblivious to the history of the sidewalk and the moral battle that once played out at his very feet.

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Do you remember the protest? Do you recognize anyone in the film? If so, email aaron@aaronchapman.net.

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