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Documentary Film  
 
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Documentaries as the Battleground for Social and Political Change

Individuals representing national and local glbtq organizations are at the forefront of the fight against discrimination in all parts of society, but increasingly documentaries are taking center stage in clarifying and examining that struggle and in participating in the advancement of glbtq rights. These documentaries attempt to control and direct debate over civil rights and to respond to the discourses of heterosexism generated by homophobic groups.

Late in 1992, right-wing fundamentalist groups produced The Gay Agenda: The Report, which generalizes "the ills of gay life" that would infect a city or state with legislation giving "special rights" to glbtq people. In 1993 the Southern Baptist Convention produced Gay Rights-Special Rights: Inside the Homosexual Agenda.

Sponsor Message.

Both films circulated in Oregon, where the Oregon Citizens Alliance was pushing for passage of anti-gay Ballot Measure 9, and in Colorado, where conservative groups were campaigning for Amendment 2, which would have prohibited discrimination claims based on sexual orientation.

Deborah Fort and Ann Skinner Jones made The Great Divide in 1993 in response to these films, and Heather McDonald produced Ballot Measure 9 in 1994 partly in response to The Gay Agenda but also to expose the tactics of hate and violence by conservative forces in Oregon. With these two films, these documentarians became activists resisting anti-gay initiatives.

The battle among documentaries occurred again in 1999 after Debra Chasnoff's It's Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in School (1996) aired on many PBS stations and Meema Spadola's Our House: A Very Real Documentary about Kids of Gay and Lesbian Parents (1999) began to circulate in schools.

In direct response to PBS's airing of It's Elementary, the American Family Association quickly made Suffer the Children: Answering the Homosexual Agenda in Public Schools (1999), which even lifted scenes from It's Elementary to argue that children were being indoctrinated by homosexuals. The AFA succeeded in getting some PBS stations to air the film, but Fort, Skinner, and McDonald responded with efforts to screen their films in schools.

The recent release of Tom Shepard's Scout's Honor (2000), chronicling 13-year-old scout Steven Cozza's nationwide campaign against discrimination by the Boy Scouts, is evidence that documentarians will continue to participate in the national debates on glbtq rights.

Activist Organizations and Activism

Although the label "activism" can apply to the function of many glbtq documentaries, a distinct sub-genre of films depict activist organizations. Janet Baus and Su Friedrich's The Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too (1993) chronicles the first year of the Lesbian Avengers; Rosa von Praunheim's The Transexual Menace (1996) depicts the activism of the organization of the same name; and Sandra Elgear, Robyn Hutt, and David Meieran's Voices from the Front (1991), and Rosa von Praunheim's Positive (1990) and Silence=Death (1990) examine strategies of AIDS activists and ACT-UP.

Portraits of activists and activist organizations have the potential to galvanize glbtq people, increase participation in organizations, and make a lasting impression in the fight for a specific cause.

Robert Hilferty's Stop the Church (1990), a documentary showing members of ACT-UP demonstrating against New York's Cardinal O'Connor by entering St Patrick's Cathedral and lying down until removed by the police, is a disturbing film about the disruptive power of activism. Perhaps not surprisingly, PBS refused to air the documentary.

Documentaries can also be tools for individual activism, as Tim Kirkman proves in Dear Jesse (1997), a long letter to Senator Jesse Helms interspersed with images that depict his hatred and interviews with people on the street about their attitudes toward Helms.

Lyrical Form in Autobiographical Documentaries

Sadie Benning, Barbara Hammer, and Su Friedrich, three of the most successful and popular experimental filmmakers, have sought innovative ways of seeing themselves as lesbians. They create images that reflect their visions of the world. Their work has expanded the notion of what constitutes a documentary. All three filmmakers claim the right to define lesbianism as an individual construction.

Most of Sadie Benning's short and personal documentaries were filmed in her bedroom, and incorporate numerous television images. In Me and Rubyfruit (1989), Jollies (1990), and Girlpower (1992), Benning constantly seeks to define her sexual identity within a fiercely homophobic society that has produced narrow and negative images of women and lesbians.

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