The QFest lineup for 2013 is as stellar as ever, and for 12 days this month, beginning Thursday, July 11, Philadelphia’s a much richer city as a result. And not just for queer folks. Yes, the onslaught of queer-themed cinema programming does wonders for our psyche and offers a week and a half of potential date destinations. But, as it turns out, the same things that affect queer people affect everyone else, too. The elements of loneliness, love, friendship, heartache and ambition aren’t exclusive to gays. With DOMA’s demise and the country abuzz with gay marriage acceptance, it’s becoming less and less anything that anyone cares about—straights are allowed to get down with gay stuff. It just means you have taste.
To discuss the entire slate of QFest programming in this space is impossible; there are so many outstanding films that address vast swaths of life and culture—shorts, features, documentaries, dramas and comedies are all here, and they capture such themes as coming-of-age (Animals) and go-go boy veneration (The Go Doc Project). We picked a feature documentary by PJ Raval as a film to get into the essence of the festival’s great value, and caught up with the Texas-based director this week to discuss his newest, Before You Know It.
With the outstanding success of last year’s How to Survive a Plague, we know that documentary is one of film’s ripest formats for mining deeply felt emotion, and Raval struck gold when he started exploring all of the intersections of life that bubble up around the stories of aging gays. In Before You Know It, three characters form a perfect triumvirate of narratives: Once-closeted Dennis is in his 70s, living in Florida and exploring gay retirement options in Portland, Ore.; Ty’s a marriage and LGBT activist in Harlem and directs outreach for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE for short); and Robert runs a legendary bar in Galveston, Texas, called Robert’s Lafitte that specializes in no-frills drag and fostering community. Together, their stories offer a complete, vivid picture of the multi-generational gay struggle that maybe, after all, is becoming less of a fight at this moment in time.
“We started filming in early 2009, and we officially stopped shooting in the summer of 2012 and premiered it March of 2013,” Raval tells PW. “We were shooting up until the very end, so it’s still very fresh.” It takes time to foster relationships with doc subjects, and Raval decided to take the camera out of his own hands—he’s also a decidedly accomplished cinematographer—and really engage with the life the film’s subjects were living.
“You have to let life unfold, so it’s really impossible to just show up and capture someone’s life,” Raval explains. “With Dennis’ storyline, it was about two and a half years, but it’s also kind of necessary if you want that intimate access and that trust, and to really experience life in front of you. There’s a relationship that forms.”
The prospect of capturing the essence of one human’s struggles and getting them to be comfortably filmed without pretense is a daunting task, but one that Raval handles deftly and masterfully. Before You Know It touches on all different emotions and struggles: from loneliness and the stigma of singledom into late adulthood, to drag and its mysteriously magical power in the gay experience, to pride and the prospect of gay marriage. Marriage is one of the most fascinating and hot-button issues at play, and the result isn’t what you might expect.
For the aging LGBT community, marriage is something they never thought would happen. Having seen every stage of civil equality under the sun, from segregation to voting rights to interracial unions, nonetheless couldn’t imagine it would be a reality in their lifetime, even in their wildest dreams. Like Ty says at one telling moment in Before You Know It, it’s like someone in the ‘70s imagining the prospect of something like an iPod. And then what do you do with the right once you’ve got it?
“[Ty]’s very much, in his storyline, thinking it through. He’s never thought about [marriage] before, and these are discussions he and [his partner] had not had,” said Raval. “For me, I was really fascinated by the idea of things you hadn’t imagined happening in your life, and you have to react.”
As it turns out, Raval caught Ty—at a Harlem house party awaiting the New York State Senate’s momentous announcement of gay marriage—at the exact moment it became clear to him that he could marry his boyfriend. And to witness it is pure magic.
For more information on QFest, its participating films, screening times and locations, visit qfest.com.
In Memoriam: Amiri Baraka