Monday, March 8, 2010

Word Is Out

from National Public Radio:

The '70s: Between the Stonewall riots and the emergence of AIDS, it was one of the last moments in mainstream American society when homosexuality was still "the love that dare not speak its name." Yet one pioneering movie managed not just to investigate the lives of more than two dozen "out" gay men and lesbians, but to allow them to tell their own stories in their own ways.

The documentary, called Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, is widely appreciated among film scholars, but it's been relatively inaccessible to the general public since its theatrical release in 1978. That changed this winter, when a newly restored print from the UCLA Film and Television Archives hit theaters; a DVD release is set to follow soon.

One of the first films made by gay people about gay people, Word is Out documented 26 very different lives — from the early activist Harry Hay to a young black Princeton undergraduate to a white corporate executive and a working-class Latina couple — talking about their experiences. And the key word was "their."

"Even as a black lesbian, I wouldn't want to be seen as [saying], 'This is how black lesbians are," begins one young woman named Betty (now Achebe) Powell, at pains not to speak for an entire group.

But the film's diversity is mostly emotional. The subjects reflect frankly on their relationships with families and with lovers, and the film takes on an earnest, gentle tone that initially irritated some gay activists.

"I remember thinking, 'Why isn't it sexier?'" recalls Jeff Weinstein, a former arts editor for The Village Voice. "And I remember thinking of it as spinach. I've changed my mind. It's only grown in its importance. I think people have to see this, to see how difficult it was, how brave people were."

He's referring, in part, to the interviews with a woman identified in the film only as "Whitey," who spent most of her teenage years institutionalized because of her lesbianism. Her psychiatrist advised eating green salads as part of her "cure."

But Whitey was relatively lucky compared to one mild-mannered man, who could not even recall how many shock treatments he'd received.

"It would be between 10 and 50," he says, voice tight.

The people interviewed in Word is Out tell their stories quietly in living rooms, offices and backyards. In one interview, David Gillon sits in a sunny meadow and says that for the longest time, he thought perhaps he was just a cold person who could never love anybody.

"And when I fell in love with this guy, it meant so much to me," he says. "It meant I was a real person."

Gillon was a young man when he agreed to be part of the film, but not as young as filmmaker Rob Epstein, who was still a teenager when he started working on the documentary.

"It was my film school," Epstein says now, on the phone from the Sundance Film Festival. Epstein, who went on to direct the acclaimed documentaries The Celluloid Closet and The Times of Harvey Milk, was screening his new drama, Howl — based on the life of beat poet Allen Ginsberg — to the Park City crowd.

And the young man he spoke with so many years ago? David Gillon is now 57 years old, and says he's still friends with the man who was his first love.

"Being in the movie made me squirm," he confesses today. It was overwhelming, he says, to be sharing screen time with gay-rights activists like Harry Hay and Sally Gearhart.

But after the film's release, Gillon got hundreds of letters from people telling him he'd given them hope of finding love too. He says he saw it as his duty to answer every letter in a friendly, upbeat tone.

"And I'd say, 'If you're in the neighborhood, stop in,'" he recalls. "I didn't think that was going to happen, but it seemed that everyone ... showed up practically the next day."

Gillon says that's evidence of how isolated so many gay men and lesbians felt, and what a relief it was to see people talking honestly and without shame about their lives.

When the Word is Out DVD comes out in June, it will include a short follow-up documentary about the film's subjects. The update tells of the death of about half the men from HIV-related illnesses, but it also revisits one of the women who now identifies as straight. Two of the other women are still together; they have nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Those great-grandchildren might have a hard time understanding how differently gay people lived in the 1970s, and for that Jeff Weinstein partially credits Word is Out. Back in the film's day, he says, "other people were always defining who gay people were."

Word is Out, by contrast, gave gay people a chance to change the conversation, and discuss the sometimes banal, sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful realities of their lives.

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