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Life Without Family Acceptance

Arthur Dong's new film finds parents who do anything to change their gay children

July 11, 2002|KEVIN MAYNARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"My films aren't for everybody," says Arthur Dong from his Silver Lake home office. "I don't get the 'Star Wars' type of crowds."

While the 48-year-old Sundance award-winning documentarian doesn't expect blockbuster box office, the films he makes about real-life battles are arguably more compelling than any effects-laden spectacle you're likely to see all summer.

Beginning with "Public," a five-minute animated short he made in 1970 at age 16, Dong has always been fascinated with sexual repression, oppression and violence, specifically in relation to homosexuality. Though full of compassion and insight, films like "Coming Out Under Fire" (1994) and "Licensed to Kill" (1997) are far from the self-affirming (and sometimes self-congratulatory) fare often seen at gay and lesbian film festivals. And he examines tough issues to illustrate that the fight for gay civil rights is far from over. His latest film, "Family Fundamentals," looks at the crossfire between fundamentalist Christian parents and their gay and lesbian children.

Don't use the word "homophobia" to describe Dong's focus. He began to reexamine the word while making "Coming Out Under Fire," adapted from Alan Berube's nonfiction book on nine gay soldiers in World War II. These Americans served at a time when the military established a specific anti-gay policy; not coincidentally, the film was released during the furor over then-President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Dong and Berube "were writing the opening narration for the film and we just thought the word wasn't quite right," says Dong. "The word 'homophobia' implies fear and psychology as opposed to looking at other issues like conditioning from church, education, family upbringing or the media. All of these other factors are important in constructing society's anti-gay beliefs. We finally decided the right word was 'contempt,' contempt for homosexuality. Contempt, disgust, disdain. How does that get constructed? How does it play out in our daily lives?

"I think a lot of the work I do reflects that questioning."

In 1977, Dong was the victim of a gay bashing by four teenagers in his hometown of San Francisco. Though he managed to escape his attackers, the incident made headlines after the same teens bludgeoned a priest the same night. The incident motivated Dong to make "Licensed to Kill," a look at murderers of gay men that puts human faces to the perpetrators of hate crimes. Dong's subjects aren't monsters; they're articulate, disturbed and real. "I don't choose people to be in my films to get that visceral ugliness that Jerry Springer goes after on purpose," says Dong. "I purposely work the other end. I'm mindful of getting different points of view."

Dong took the same approach in making "Family Fundamentals." As with his other films, the "casting" process came first. To find the subjects he needed, he assembled a panel of religious advisors that included everyone from the openly gay Rev. Mel White to Philip Yancey, the editor at large of Christianity Today, a magazine started by Billy Graham in the 1950s.

Dong found three sets of parents and children. To achieve a sense of comfort with these potentially difficult interviewees, Dong worked without a crew. "It was really liberating," he says. "I just went to people's houses and said, 'Here I am, let me hook a mic to your shirt' and that's it. No lights, no other people, it's just you and me, so let's talk."

One was a political family, though not related: Brian Bennett shared a father-son bond with conservative Republican congressman Bob Dornan until Bennett came out. He was ostracized by his mentor and the gay community for being a gay Republican.

The second was a church family: Brett Matthews, the son of a Mormon bishop in Erda, Utah, was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1998 but stripped of veteran's benefits for coming out as gay. Telling his parents in 1999 was even more difficult.

"I came out to my mom while I was driving my car on the freeway," Matthews recounts. "She said she decided that it would be better if we were both dead than for me to live a gay lifestyle and she tried to wreck the car." Both survived. Matthews was understandably surprised when his parents agreed to participate in "Family Fundamentals," though they had second thoughts.

"I sat down with them at the kitchen table to sign the releases, which they had agreed to sign," says Dong. "And they said they could only participate if I made a film that encouraged their son to change his sexual orientation. But I kept on shooting anyway without showing their faces. They still allowed me to shoot, I'm not sure why. But they didn't actually say no, they said they needed to pray about it."

*

For the third family, Dong focused on Kathleen Bremner, an 82-year-old San Diego grandmother who advocates therapy to change the orientation of gays. Bremner conducts a monthly support-group meeting for parents with children who have "become homosexual."

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