Kirby Dick, Outrage
Whether his subjects have been small and personal or large and institutional, documentarian Kirby Dick has always dedicated himself to telling important and often provocative stories. Dick was born in Tucson, Arizona, in 1952, graduated from the Film and Video Program at the California Institute of the Arts and subsequently did postgraduate studies at the American Film Institute. He made his directorial debut in 1986 with Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate, but afterwards segued into television work, taking eleven years before he returned with his sophomore film. However that movie, Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, made a huge impact on the festival circuit and on its release with its graphic and compelling depiction of the eponymous performance artist. (In 1997, Dick also wrote the script for Michael Lindsay Hogg’s Guy, a fiction film about documentary filmmaking.) Dick followed up this success with a cinematic take on the chain letter Chain Camera (2001), and a portrait of the father of deconstructionism, Derrida (2002), co-directed with Amy Ziering. In 2004, he made both The End, a TV documentary on terminally ill cancer patients, and Twist of Faith, about a victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest, with the latter being nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars. Most recently, This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), Dick’s most high-profile and accessible movie, scandalously lifted the lid on the clandestine inner workings of the MPAA, the movie industry’s ratings body.
Audiences who liked Dick’s irreverent attack on the MPAA will definitely appreciate his new film, in which the director takes aim at another sacred cow: closeted politicians. Outrage specifically puts the spotlight on secretly gay political figures whose homophobic stances have had a detrimental effect on the homosexual community which, as the film points out, they are a part of and expect to protect them. Dick’s movie is certainly scandalous – it names names, dishes dirt, treats nothing and no one as exempt from scrutiny – and adopts an accessible style of pop journalism, utilizing sly humor and smart editing, to tackle its subject. However, Outrage is not frivolous in its revelations; though Dick outs gay politicians past and present, he does so not to spread gossip but with the intention of revealing the hypocrisy of their anti-gay actions. In a way, Outrage, like This Film Is Not Yet Rated, goes beyond the usual parameters of a documentary as it sets out not only to reveal taboo truths but also to have a direct and positive effect on the world it depicts.
Filmmaker spoke to Dick about his role as an activist filmmaker, the impact he hopes Outrage will have, and the future of documentaries.
Filmmaker: Recently you made a shift from telling personal, smaller stories to focusing on bigger problems with large organizations, which seemed to begin with This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Why did you change your focus?
Dick: It probably started with Twist of Faith. That was transitional because obviously the psychological experience of the survivors of clergy sexual abuse was foregrounded, but behind that was the culpability of the Catholic Church. I went in thinking it was going to be a very intense psychological examination, but when it was finished I also realized that it also was having an impact on the issue as a whole. That was my seventh film and I realized I had this tool of documentary filmmaking that I really felt like I wanted to engage in society… Let me back up. I feel like I had an opportunity to use my skill to enter the national debate on some very important issues, and it also just adds another level of complexity to the filmmaking. Even in Outrage, I’m very interested in the psychological aspect of these closeted politicians, but I like my subject matter to be as complex as possible, dealing with as many issues as possible, oftentimes moving into difficult psychological terrain or even ethically grey areas, because it stimulates me to work and it also stimulates people who are working on the film as well.
Filmmaker: With This Film Is Not Yet Rated, there was really a real world response to the film. Is that why you have made a film that once again so directly addresses a big issue?
Dick: It’s a part of the reason. I mean, yes, without doubt I want my films to make an impact, but there’s also something formally interesting to me as a filmmaker. For example, with Outrage, it’s the first time I’ve ever had to deal with making a film for two audiences. Everything up until now had been an entertainment audience, a film audience, a festival audience, but I knew that this was going to be seen and evaluated first by the political press corps, and rightfully so. In another situation, I might have made it more entertaining, but here there’s a different approach, which I respect. Oftentimes we’d say, “Well, this will appeal to this audience but will be a problem for this audience, so how do we thread the needle on it?”
Filmmaker: What did you see as your aims for this film?
Dick: Well, I think they were threefold. First and foremost, I wanted to advance the cause of gay rights, which I think is the most important human rights issue in this country at this time. Secondly, I wanted to report on this hypocrisy, which is an incredibly under-reported story. One of the things I find is that audiences, if they don’t follow politics closely, are stunned by the revelations in this film, even though they’ve been out there, even though this has been reported by the gay press. It has just not got a national debate and I wanted a national debate. And, finally, I wanted this film to contribute to the demise the closet in American politics, because the closet does consort the American political system. Because this issue isn’t reported on, young people going into politics – early in their career before they even are elected to public office, often in their late teens or early twenties – make a decision to go into the closet because they see that it’s not getting discussed and they can kind of skate through it and maybe get through thirty or forty years of a career without ever having to come out. In part because of the discussion around this film, I’m hopeful that these young people will look around and realize it’s the best decision for them personally and politically to come out and run as gay politicians. I think that’s the most important thing to helping to change the closet.
Filmmaker: Would you characterize this as an activist film?
Dick: Well, I don’t see myself as an activist per se. Maybe I’m trending that way because one of the projects that I can’t discuss is incredibly activist. Oh my God! [laughs] It’s just fun to try and destabilize people who have so much power and use that power in ways that are not good for society. There is a certain fun in doing that, although it’s very serious at the same time. I guess it is [an activist film]. I am an activist filmmaker.
Filmmaker: There’s a comment in the film where someone says that the activist movement is always motivated by anger. Was this film motivated by anger?
Dick: Well, anger is certainly one of the motivations. I just don’t understand why in this country we can’t just say “All citizens have equal rights.” I mean, it’s so basic and I think any attempt by anybody, Republican or Democrat, to waffle on this issue is deplorable and appalling. And yes, that is a motivation for this film. It’s also an examination of journalism, of politics and in some ways is dispassionate and analytical, and I really want it to be an investigation of the psychology. In one aspect or factor, the film is activist.
Filmmaker: The film remained below the radar until only a few months ago. You already had Magnolia on board as a distributor, you opted to only play one festival, but now there’s been a lot of press on it and it seems like you’ve orchestrated the film to have maximum impact on its release.
Dick: Yes, early on we discussed the fact that [I wanted to] go very quickly from a festival into wide release. The whole issue of long leads these days, for this kind of film, is not nearly as important as it was a few years ago. So yes, that was the intent in the strategy from the very beginning. In fact, even before Magnolia came on, I wanted to do that. And then Magnolia of course is the pioneer of that release strategy anyway.
Filmmaker: With this being a political film about a major issue, is any coverage good coverage?
Dick: This Film Is Not Yet Rated and Outrage are really a revelation for audiences, and the one thing that upsets me is when people are saying, “We knew about this already.” Yes, you did. If you follow all of the political blogs very closely, you will know all this stuff. [But] there is some stuff that’s new, and also it’s never been put together like this before. Most of the people in this country don’t even know who the Governor of Florida is, so it comes as a real revelation. But overall it’s been received very positively, I’m very happy. I would welcome a discussion of this, even if people take issue with the issue of outing, even if they take issue with other aspects of the film. Unfortunately the discussion of this issue has not happened – and that’s why everybody’s so stunned.
Filmmaker: You just mentioned the issue of outing. Though the sexuality of some of the politicians has been discussed in blogs and the like, you are essentially outing them for the first time in a very accessible mainstream medium. How did you feel about outing these individuals?
Dick: I’m not just going out and outing gay politicians or closeted politicians, really essentially what I’m doing is reporting on closeted politicians and reporting on their hypocrisy when they vote anti-gay. You know, I think that’s the responsibility of journalists and documentary filmmakers to report on that hypocrisy. Journalists report on hypocrisy in many different kinds of situations, oftentimes their reporting is hurtful or hurts the political careers of people, but that’s their job. If people don’t do this, this society will be much worse off for it, and I think you’re seeing this with the demise of the investigative reporting departments in newspapers. This is going to really impact society.
Filmmaker: You make the case in the film that stories about homosexual politicians’ sexuality seldom get written, because it’s just not done. Are you trying to redress the balance or set a new precedent?
Dick: The gay press has been reporting on this for years, but I hope that this platforms this in such a way that people say “Yes, this hypocrisy needs to be reported on!” If it’s not, the closet stays in place and the damage that it does continues for decades. By getting this out into the mainstream to some degree and having this discussion happen, I hope that [things will change]. It’s like Barney Frank says, they’ll write everything about his personal life except for the fact that he’s gay. What is the underlying message of that? There’s something wrong with being gay. That message gets out there and permeates the culture and contributes to the continuation of homophobia.
Filmmaker: How challenging was it for you to get find people who would talk to you and convince them to go on the record and on film?
Dick: What I found was that many sources were very afraid. You would contact them, they would be sympathetic to what I was trying to achieve and seeming like they would perhaps speak to me on the record, and then the next time I talked to them [they would have changed their mind]. They would be candid and say, “Look, I live in this district, this representative is very powerful in this district. All my business relationships are here, all my personal relationships are here. I don’t know what he’ll do. He could so something, and I can’t take the risk.” I was somewhat surprised at that. It made sense afterwards, but it did happen on quite a few occasions.
Filmmaker: So there’s a lot that you know about that’s not in this film.
Filmmaker: And how do you feel about that?
Dick: You know, the one thing I didn’t want to do was to focus on a politician and not make sure I had all the correct information. People sometimes politically will gay bash people – even if they’re straight – and I had to be very careful about that. So there are people, yes, that I think are gay, who are very powerful, who are definitely hypocrites, but I just didn’t have enough to say with certainty that they were.
Filmmaker: How much of the picture are we seeing in the film?
Dick: [laughs] A substantial part. There was a lot of other work that was done, there were a lot of other politicians that were focused on, but the closet is really protected and in politics people get to a position of power by creating extensive networks of alliances and it can be very difficult to maneuver through those alliances to get to a source who has the information. And even if you get to one, you have to be very careful because there could be reasons they are putting out this information. That would happen often where I would have someone who I believed talking about a politician with information that I thought should be out, but I really felt like I needed a corroboration of them.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Dick: Jesus, it was a Western but I don’t remember the name. It was a classic story about a guy who hung up his guns and, in the very end, this guy had to come back and have a gunfight with somebody. It would been in the 50s.
Filmmaker: Will the current boom in documentaries last?
Dick: I think it’s around to stay. I personally think that the medium’s pressures are dramatic and I sense a lot of creative energy moving out of that into the internet, not to say that there aren’t great filmmakers or great films still being made. But I think documentaries seem more suited to the internet in many ways and the wide openness of documentaries sort of parallels the wide openness of the internet. I think it could take all kinds of forms and survive.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest experience you’ve had during your time in the film industry?
Dick: Oh, I can’t tell you that… [laughs] I can’t let you know. I can’t, [laughs] but I was in some very strange situations. One was… No, I’ll just leave it at that.