Tuesday, May 4, 2010

OUT IN THE SILENCE: "A Moving, Entertaining Commentary On America's Culture War"

In this review of OUT IN THE SILENCE, a documentary film about the struggle for LGBT visibility and rights in Venango County, the essence of Diane Gramley, Venango County's resident right-wing extremist, is perfectly captured in just a few sentences.

by Kilian Melloy for EDGEBoston/Miami:

In OUT IN THE SILENCE, filmmakers--and spouses--Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer return to Joe’s home town of Oil City, Pennsylvania, after a wedding announcement in the local newspaper infuriates the town’s residents--but also inspires Kathy Springer, a single mother whose gay son has suffered anti-gay harassment at school, to write the couple a letter.

The boy is CJ Bills, an openly gay 16-year-old who was regarded as an athlete and accepted as one of the town’s own, until the moment he stood up on behalf of a classmate who was being bullied because he was perceived to be gay. In defending the bully’s victim, CJ outed himself--and from that day forward, his life at school became an unending series of torments. When CJ finally sought help from the school’s administration, he found himself blamed for the harassment he suffered. Worse, he was placed under arrest.

Joe and Dean, intrigued by CJ’s story, visit Oil City on a number of occasions over the next several years, documenting CJ’s story as he and his mother take the school to court. But the focus quickly widens to include Oil City as a whole: a local anti-gay activist, Diane Gramley, heads up the town chapter of the American Family Association, a group that--despite its name--makes a mission out of attacking gay and lesbian people and their families. Even as CJ’s case heads to court and his mother stands up for him in town hall meetings, Gramley is busy sending out "action alerts" and marching in the streets to denounce gays and warn that "They’re Coming to Your Town!"--the title of an AFA video that, without any sense of irony, seems to miss the point that Kathy and CJ are attempting to make: "they" aren’t coming to town... "they" are already here, and always have been.

As a study in the way in which a community is strained by the artificial emphasis placed on natural human differences, OUT IN THE SILENCE is a moving, enlightening commentary on America’s culture war. (The film’s most priceless moment may be when one of Gramley’s followers whispers to her that Joe, and gays in general, are "brainwashed.") As a look at the life of a tough, brave--but hurt--kid, the film is a touching personal document: Joe hands CJ a camera and invites him to film himself just being himself, and the resulting footage has more in common with MTV’s "Jackass" than with the Folsom Street Fair (which Gramley, at one point, seems to be referencing as she warns about the perils of gays descending on Oil City with their "agenda").

Gramley is a fascinating counterpoint to Kathy and CJ. She uses the language of compassion, but her actions speak much more loudly--one of her "action alerts" urges local businesses and residents to boycott the efforts of a lesbian couple working to revitalize downtown. Gramley’s view seems to be that unless gays are routed out and their rights stripped away, straights will be forced to conform to some sort of gay "lifestyle," and indeed the film includes footage of a local pastor echoing that general sentiment as he preaches against a hate crimes protection law, telling a crowd of followers that religious people will lose their freedom of worship is gays gain such protections.

But middle ground does exist; Joe discovers it when he forges a friendship with a local evangelical pastor and his wife. Neither "converts" the other, but both have their eyes opened to the discovery that they have more to talk about--and agree on--than they would have imagined.

1 comment:

Michael Mahler said...

A very cool (and on-target!) review! Kudos for all of the wonderful things that you do!