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Documentary Film  
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The community has aggressively used documentary film to resurrect historical memory and to permit the marginalized to bear witness, as well as to build an image base that reflects our diversity and counters distorted and misleading representations.

The availability of relatively inexpensive, lightweight, and high-quality video equipment has contributed to these efforts as queer documentarians have challenged the conventional forms and aesthetic principles of a long documentary tradition. Documentary entries at the major United States lesbian and gay film festivals have increased at a phenomenal pace over the last ten years.

The number and quality of documentaries being produced spawned the yearly QueerDOC Festival, which began in 1998 in England. Documentary film is an indispensable media for glbtq people to re-evaluate and reposition themselves in different contexts.

Direct Cinema and the Birth of Gay Documentaries

Lesbian and gay documentaries were unheard of until the release of Ken Robinson's Some of Our Best Friends in 1971. Robinson, a student at the University of Southern California, found activists willing to speak and, in most cases, be seen on camera (albeit sometime in shadow), including gay protesters at a psychiatric convention, a man entrapped by vice squad ploys, and representatives of a New York group.

But it was not until 1977 that two documentaries, Arthur Bressan's Gay U.S.A. and Peter Adair's Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, received wide attention and broad distribution. Both documentaries have been praised as excellent examples of "direct cinema," a term used by documentarians since the early 1960s to indicate minimal intrusion by filmmakers in the interview process and on the narratives that unfold.

Word Is Out took six people--who constituted the Mariposa Film Group--three years to make. The filmmakers chose 26 people as subjects after "pre-interviewing" 200 people across America. With one stationary camera directed at the interviewees, who never shifted their positions, the film records narratives of self discovery, of discrimination, of ways to cope in a society, and of living an open life. It is a startling document of national gay identity.

Gay USA forged an even stronger sense of a national civil rights movement. Bressan sent film crews to six cities to capture gay pride marches and activities over one weekend. It is the first queer documentary to see politics as an integral part of queer celebration, and a more far-reaching film than Word Is Out in terms of the number of people interviewed and the range of questions posed to them.

In the 1990s documentaries such as Karen Kiss and Paris Poirier's The Pride Divide (1997) and Lucy Winer and Karen Eaton's Golden Threads (1999) also communicated a collective sense of lesbian and gay identity, but with a more complicated visual style and dramatic structure. The Pride Divide contrasts the differences and conflicts between gay men and lesbians in their movement toward civil rights. Lesbians in Golden Threads celebrate their commonality at a retreat as the film reveals the difficulties they had defining their identity in the 1940s and 1950s.

Producing and Distributing Queer Documentaries

Most queer documentaries are independent productions. In the 1970s and 1980s many documentarians undertook the time consuming and arduous task of funding their own films. As queer documentaries started achieving visibility and acclaim, however, funding opportunities appeared from non-commercial outlets.

The Public Telecommunications Act of 1988 mandated that Congress allocate funds to PBS "for programming that involves creative risks and addresses the needs of under served audiences." With these monies PBS set up the Independent Television Service, which funded in whole or part such important documentaries as Arthur Dong's Coming Out under Fire (1995), Meema Spadola's Our House: A Very Real Documentary about Kids of Gay and Lesbian Families (1999), Debra Chasnoff's It's Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in School (1996), The Pride Divide (1997), Tom Shepard's Scout's Honor (2000), Golden Threads (1999), Eric Slade's Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay (2001), and two four-part series, Positive: Life with HIV (1995) and The Question of Equality: Gay and Lesbian Struggle Since Stonewall (1995).

ITS funded films are usually shown first at film festivals and sometimes move to brief runs at art film houses before airing on PBS nationwide. Although ITS funds are vital to the continuing production of queer documentaries, they impose some restrictions. For example, most films produced by ITS must fit a sixty minute time slot. This has not deterred filmmakers happy to advance beyond festival venues and reach a different and larger audience, but it has to some extent shaped the form of their work.

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Director of cinematography Robert Shepard (left) and filmmaker Arthur Dong on location for the documentary Licensed to Kill at Robertson Correctional Unit, Abilene, Texas. 1996.
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