Word Is Out
June marks the month of gay pride in many cities across the country. To commemorate these events, we will be running reviews of and essays about significant gay and lesbian films made over the past half a century.
The seminal documentary “Word is Out” debuted in 1977, as the first feature-length work about lesbian and gay identity made by openly gay filmmakers.
In 2010, Milliarium Zero, Milestone Film’s sister company, presented the DVD premiere of “Word Is Out,” newly restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and its Outfest Legacy Project. The release, set for June 8, celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the first Gay Pride Marches and follows its premiere at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival and the theatrical tour around the world earlier this year.
Up until then, there was no viable print of “Word is Out”–the only record of this seminal documentary was falling apart. Now, The Outfest Legacy Project, along with UCLA has created archival 35mm preservation negative, restored the soundtrack and made two pristine 35mm viewing prints. The legacy of both the Mariposa film collective and the subjects of this film are now safe and queer history has been preserved.
Two-time Oscar Award winner Rob Epstein, one of the members of the Mariposa Film Group, remarked, “We are extremely pleased and honored to have Word Is Out restored, and apparently just in the nick of time. Even today, thirty years after the films premiere, it is incredibly moving to witness the people in this film describe gay bars being raided by police in San Francisco in the 1960′s, or getting shock treatment, or being put on a diet of two green salads a day by a psychiatrist, all in the hopes of curing or repressing homosexuality. For younger people, this film will be revelatory. For all, Word Is Out is vital film history. The Outfest Legacy Project has helped to preserve this history forever, and for this we are all very grateful.”
The preservation of “Word Is Out” is an important step in ensuring the survival of important and endangered LGBT works, said Kirsten Schaffer, Outfest Interim Executive Director. Unfortunately many other LGBT films are in imminent danger of fading away their original exhibition prints in tatters, their negatives in woeful storage conditions, or even lost. Gay and lesbian independent films including significant titles from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s are in particular peril because of a perceived lack of commercial value by the industry and/or the filmmakers inability to maintain their work themselves she continued. The Outfest Legacy Project is working to raise funds to rescue these films, strike new prints for widespread public exhibition, and expand access to researchers and the public. I am thrilled to see Word Is Out on the big screen – it promises to be a moving experience as the legacy of both the Mariposa film collective and the subjects of this film are now safe and our queer history has been preserved. she concludes.
“The groundbreaking restoration of Word is Out is a milestone for the Outfest Legacy Project,” said Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive. “We shall continue working on the monumental task of rescuing endangered LGBT works and making them available to audiences and scholars worldwide.”
The restoration of “Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives” has been made possible by the David Bohnett Foundation. Additional support was provided by The Andrew J. Kuehn, Jr. Foundation and the members of Outfest.
“Word is Out” debuted in 1977 as the first feature-length documentary about lesbian and gay identity made by gay filmmakers. The Mariposa Film Group comprising of Peter Adair (Absolutely Positive), Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein (“The Times of Harvey Milk”), Lucy Massie Phenix (Winter Soldier) and Veronica Selver sought to create a film free of political didactics and to simply tell the stories of growing up gay in America. After conducting 140 interviews, the filmmakers selected twenty-six people of various lifestyles, races, ages and backgrounds. What they achieved was a cornerstone in Gay Rights. Audiences were startled and moved by these stories told by the film’s participants. The documentary was released in theaters around the world and shown on prime-time television. It helped untold numbers of people accept themselves, their friends and their families, and had an impact on American culture.
“Word is Out” became a landmark in cinema, but time had taken its toll on the existing prints and the film was rarely seen. The Outfest Legacy Project and UCLA Film & Television Archive restored Word is Out with the generous contribution of the David Bohnett Foundation, creating a high-definition video for this DVD premiere. Ripe for rediscovery, the film is at once a record of past struggles, an occasion for reflecting on how far we still have to go, and a masterpiece of the documentary form. Viewers will be charmed, touched and perhaps galvanized to action by the film’s emotionally breathtaking blend of candor, humor, love and humanity.
The rising tide of anti-gay propaganda, spearheaded by Anita Bryant’s Bible-thumping crusade, revitalized the gay movement. The efforts of socially conscious filmmakers resulted in two landmark works, “Gay USA” and “Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives.” Both films rely on the interview format, but their footage and method differ greatly.
In 1975, producer Peter Adair envisioned a short film about gay people to be used as teaching material in schools. After two frustrating years of searching for foundation support, he resorted to private investors. He joined forces with his sister Nancy, assistant cameraman Andrew Brown, sound editor Veronica Selver, filmmakers Lucy Massie Phoenix and Rob Epstein, and the Maripose Film Group came into existence. What began as a modest presentation of positive role models for gay people became a chronicle of the vast range of gay experience.
Committed to collectivist organization, the filmmakers decentralized the shooting and editing processes. Of the pre-interviewed 200 persons, then jointly selected 26 women and men. Choice of location and props–clothes–were made in consultation with the interviewees. To make subjects feel at ease, a stationary camera was used and, since the camera operator was also the interviewer, communication proceeded smoothly.
Along with interviews, footage was assembled about the subjects’ working and living situations. The Mariposa Group spent over a year editing 50 hours of footage down to 2 hours and 15 minutes. Various cuts were screened for gay audiences and responses solicited, allowing the community to participate in determining the final cut.
“Word is Out” is divided into three sections: “The Early Years,” “Growing Up,” and “From Now On.” Subjects were carefully chosen to display diverse lifestyles; their interviews are broken up and used in more than one section. Frontal medium to close shots are used, giving the impression of a portrait in which the subject directly addresses the camera and creating an intimate rapport between subject and viewer.
Interviewees include Elsa Gidlow, 79, the eldest subject, lesbian mothers Pam Jackson and Rusty Millington, drag queen Tede Mathews, and middle-aged couple Harry Hay and John Burnside picking berries in the country. Despite diversity along ethnic and sexual lines, certain patterns emerge, asserting middle-class values. The large number of stable couples in the film suggests the pattern of traditional matrimony; only one character speaks up for casual-sex, which was then the norm for many gay men.
The final section, “From Now On,” focuses on various dimensions of gay politics. Powell, of the National Gay Task Force, relates her “coming out” of a heterosexual marriage. Her assertion that “lesbians and gay men have a great deal to offer in terms of restructuring the world culture,” is articulated by feminist Sally Gearhart, who claims all humans are born with bisexual potential but are made half-persons by society’s strict gender programming.
The inclusion of stereotypical dykes such as Pat Bond and effeminate men like Roger Herkenrider suggests the complexity of role-playing in gay life. There are also Donald Hackett, a black truck driver, and Linda Marco, both married before coming out (another pattern in the cast). While the film’s most intellectual arguments come from women, the strongest emotional moments are from men. One male confessed: “In high school, I thought I was just one of those people who could never love anybody. When I fell in love with Henry, it meant I was human.”
“Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives” impacted audiences around the world in 1977 by destroying stereotypes of the gay experience. Today, the power of this film lies not only in its disarming interviews but in how these beautifully woven interviews stand as a watershed to our history. These stories are a record of our struggles, our dissension, our joys, our loves and our lives.
“Word is Out” is often touching and generally engrossing. Its quality lies not just in the fact that it gives us the most intelligent, telling cinematic look to date at the homosexual experience in America, but beyond that, it is quite funny and speaks not only to the homosexual, but to all of us who have experienced the pain of being different; which is to say, all of us.
Bonus Features of 2010 DVD edition:
Produced by Members of the Original Mariposa Film Group
1. Word Is Out, Then and Now: Thirty Years Later, featuring the filmmakers and many of the participants.
2. Afterthoughts by the filmmakers and participants
3. History of the MARIPOSA Film Group
4. Remembering Peter Adair, the film’s producer and main force behind the collective.
5. DVD Exec Producer David Bohnett, the man behind the film’s restoration and DVD release.
6. Word Is Out Trailer
7. OUTFEST Legacy Project PSA
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