Patricia Rozema's I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) is showing exclusively on MUBI in most countries starting March 23, 2022 in the series Rediscovered. In many countries it is showing alongside Mouthpiece (2018) in Divided Selves: A Patricia Rozema Double Bill.
Some context. Where I grew up, in a Dutch immigrant community in “Chemical Valley” also known as Sarnia, Ontario, Canada surrounded by some 60 chemical plants, there were no artists in my orbit. Not even in the farming community in the north of the Netherlands where all my family come from. I once asked my grandmother whether any of our family wrote stories or songs or poems or made paintings. She didn’t need to think for long to say, (in Dutch), “Nee, ze waren allemaal normaal.”
“No, they were all normal.”
And there were virtually no films in my world, really. My parents took the knob off the TV, or the “idiot box” as my dad liked to call it, when they went out. We saw some things on Sunday afternoon, after church. My mum liked the Green Bay Packers and sometimes we’d watch the Wonderful World of Disney if we didn’t have to go to the second church service in the evening. And occasionally after school, there were some inane sitcoms.
I do remember two movies I saw in a movie theatre: one of our “secular" neighbors invited me to see the birds and animals dressing Cinderella. That was nice. And then I remember sneaking out to a movie theatre with my then boyfriend when I was 15 to see The Exorcist. Not nice. Actually, it traumatized me. I believed in the devil.
There were also no queer people in my world, as far as I knew. There was one gentle boy in high school who killed himself. Maybe that was a factor. I remember sitting in the living room with the adults (mostly the men because the women were preparing the coffee and boterkoek in the kitchen) when they would discuss that week’s sermon and some old fellow said, “You know, I’ve read about the homosexuals, I’ve prayed about the homosexuals, now all I need to do is meet one.” I, who had just looked up the word in the dictionary and was pretty convinced he had already met one, said nothing.
Because I came from a context of deep shame.
I studied philosophy and literature at Calvin College and Seminary (alma mater of filmmaker Paul Schrader—yay. And Betsy Devos—not yay). That’s where I discovered film—Bergman. And stories.
I thought I would write fiction but make my living as a journalist because I couldn’t imagine anyone making a living as an artist. But as a television journalist, however, I discovered that people start lying once there’s a camera on their faces. They weren’t themselves. They performed themselves.
It struck me that the real stuff, the deepest drives for all of us are not visible and that was the stuff I wanted to address. I knew all about secrets, their power, their deliciousness, their shame and the fact that they cause you to become not only distant from others but from yourself. So I decided to make a film where that which was not visible, was made visible. And that which is not verbal or visual was reached for through music. I gave my character visions. Not dreams, that was the stuff of silly mainstream fantasy, but “visions.” Somehow that distinction seemed important.
I think the shame and the secrets led me to lean into the charm and comedy in this, my first film. Because the strike against me was so profoundly damning I needed it (and by extension me) to be so damn likable. I’d learned from Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette in 1985 the power of introducing the characters and only after you’ve come to know them a little, know their sincerity and their vulnerability, then reveal their sexual orientation. I wanted the love between women to be presented as just one more fact in the universe. Not a salacious personality-obliterating headline.
And I knew I needed, with the help of the incredibly gifted comedienne Sheila McCarthy, to make them laugh. Because then you can take an audience anywhere.
These were my strategies. For acceptance.
After the film was shown in Cannes and sold to 30-something countries and my grandmother finally saw this, her first movie in a movie theatre, I asked her what she thought and she said, (in Dutch) “Well, it’s not really my kind of thing.”
I guess it wasn’t.
The distributor said to my father, “You must be so proud, we can bring the film to Sarnia and share it with your community.” And, with me right there, he answered, “No, no that’s okay.”
Perhaps I seem bitter. I’m not. My family was stellar in most other ways. They were doing their best. What I’m seeing now, after all these years when I look at this movie, is the spectacular healing power of narrative, of art, of humor. Through the alchemical magic of film, hate and rejection and shame can be transformed into love.