Friday, August 06, 2010

Out in the Silence

(News-Herald, August 5) I finally watched Joe Wilson’s documentary, “Out in the Silence.” Today I’ll try to answer the question, “Should you watch it, too?”
Before I start, I should make full disclosure of the baggage I carry into this.
First, while creating and promoting the film, Joe has taken a lot of shots at the school where I work, and continues to accuse me, my coworkers, and my bosses of behavior that would be unethical, unprofessional, and even illegal. Several years of being on the receiving end of personal and professional attacks do not make me likely to join the Joe Wilson fan club.
Second, I’m a parent and divorced guy, and I’ve often said about both that if you haven’t been there, you just don’t get it, no matter how well-meaning you are. The same is true here; no matter how sympathetic a straight male I may be, I will never really get what it means to live as a gay or lesbian person in a small town.
Joe’s film jumps off from the point when the News-Derrick ran the announcement of his wedding to his husband and local letter-writers reacted as if the newspaper had shoved a hot poker up their noses. (Full disclosure: I thought the paper was right, the people who objected were wrong, and the people who launched into hateful attacks were really wrong.) From there the film goes on to follow three stories.
The most problematic is the story of the former FHS student who sued the district. This thread presents the young man’s view effectively; unfortunately, that’s all there is. Part of it is the nature of the setting. The school district and its employees are bound to silence when it comes to our students. If his story is completely accurate, we can’t say so. If he has left out large chunks of important information, we can’t say that, either.
But Joe doesn’t do anything fill in that gap. Joe doesn’t talk to any other gay students, any straight students, any other parents. It’s not simply a matter of balance; Joe seems to want to suggest that this is part of a larger picture, but we get none of that picture. Was he the only gay student at school? What do straight students have to say?
Considerably more affecting is the story of the women renovating the Latonia Theater. We hear a variety of voices and Roxanne Hitchcock and Linda Henderson (full disclosure: I’ve known Linda since 4th grade) are an articulate and touching couple on film, and the Latonia is a striking and compelling project.
This section is the most poignant; the two women are no longer together and the Latonia sits uncertainly because of it. I suspect that splitting couples and family spats have tanked more enterprises in Venangoland than economic troubles.
The gutsiest section of the film shows Joe reaching out to letter-writers who objected to his marriage announcement. One couple responds, and Joe’s interactions with Pastor Mark Niklos and his wife Diane is the most honest part of the film. Joe includes a comment of his own showing bigotry about small-town folks and allows Niklos to make the observation that stereotypes run both ways. He also gives Pastor Niklos the best line of the film: “There are people behind the issues that we need to be sensitive to.” Mark and Diane emerge from the film as models of Christian witness on the issue without sacrificing their conservative principles.
Oddly, perhaps for narrative simplicity, Joe leaves us with the impression that Franklin High School and the Barrow Theater are both located in Oil City and the city of Franklin does not exist.
More amazingly, Joe almost made me feel sorry for Diane Gramley. After sandbagging her on camera at various public events and getting her to speak, he follows her down the sidewalk after a church service. Having finally learned her lesson, she walks silently, head forward. On the narration, Joe accuses her of treating him like he doesn’t exist. It’s a cheap shot, and if he doesn’t know that, then he’s forgotten a great deal about small town life. For a moment I felt bad for Diane. Then I remembered the tactics the AFA have used through the years, and I got over it.
Gay and lesbian life in a small town is a worthy and potentially interesting subject. Joe captures his characters, but in 56 minutes very little of the flavor of the community comes through. The film is worth viewing just for the Niklos portion, but as a full, balanced picture of a complex issue, it doesn’t quite succeed.

1 comment:

Joanna said...

I did not realize you had never seen this -- I've watched it twice now. It's painful to see Franklin misrepresented as Oil City, it's painful to watch the school board come off particularly stupid and narrow-minded. I felt no sympathy for the Diane person, and proud of the pastor and his wife. But I think the value of the film is not in its balance (there is none), but realizing that for many gay people, this is EXACTLY what they feel/see/experience. It's a POV that's clearly biased, so I can "put myself in their shoes". Not fair, or balanced, but documentaries rarely are.

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