Sunday, June 6, 2010

Small Minds In Small Towns

The recent passage of SB 1070 by the Arizona legislature has forced the media to focus on the fear so many Americans have of "the other." While the bill signed by Governor Jan Brewer was supposedly aimed at coping with problems stemming from illegal immigration, many people regard it as an act of unbridled racism.

Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California all share a geographical border with Mexico. But, as more and more Hispanics have moved across the border from Mexico and parts of Central America, racist resentment has continued to erupt from a demographic of older white Americans who, as Caucasians heading toward minority status, feel that their country is being taken away from them.

A recent media storm erupted over a mural (designed by local artists to encourage green transportation) that had been painted on the side of an elementary school in Prescott, Arizona. Egged on by Prescott Councilman Steve Blair (who also had an AM talk radio show), people would often drive by as the mural was being painted and scream racist insults at the artists.

Thousands of Prescott's citizens had volunteered and/or donated to the mural project, which reflected the diversity at a K-5 school with the highest ethnic mix in the area. Blair, however, wanted the mural destroyed. His reason?
"I am not a racist individual, but I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of that mural, based upon who's President of the United States today and based upon the history of this community, when I grew up we had four black families -- who I have been very good friends with for years -- to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, 'Why?'"
Blair's attempt to pressure the school's principal to have the artists "lighten" the faces of the minority students on the mural backfired soon after the story hit the mass media. Not only was Blair fired from his talk radio job, the principal did an about face and made a public apology.

Roughly 260 miles WSW of Prescott, in the tiny town of La Quinta, California, a group of high school students tried to use a social networking website to organize several games of "Beat The Jew." Once their activities were reported to school administrators, the games were shut down.

The growing impact of talk radio on people's fears -- coupled with the organizational capability of social networking websites -- means that news (whether good or bad) can often be disseminated at a much faster pace to a far more carefully targeted niche audience. Writing for Salon.Com, Dan Gillmor (Director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication) explores what might have happened If Social Media Had Been Widespread on 9/11.

Three films new to San Francisco audiences examine how racism and homophobia affect small communities ranging in size from a British school to a Virginia county and on to a small, conservative city in Western Pennsylvania. Each film tries to dissect and counteract the wealth of misinformation on which many people have based their fears and hatred. Although religious beliefs form a foundation for much of their hate, our good friend Sportin' Life reminds us in George Gershwin's 1935 opera, Porgy and Base, that "It Ain't Necessarily So."

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Many culture clashes lead to physical confrontations and political showdowns. While much of the media's attention has been focused on Arizona's new law, a similar conflict was caught on camera during the past two years by filmmakers Annabel Park and Eric Byler as they documented a political upheaval in Northern Virginia. In July of 2007, Prince William County became a focal point in the controversy over illegal immigration.

Alarmed by what they saw happening in the community, Park and Byler (who had previously worked on documentary films) began to record interviews with concerned citizens and post them on YouTube. Eventually, they realized that they had enough raw material for a documentary of their own. The result is 9500 Liberty.

Named after the street address where Gaudencio Fernandez posted a large sign protesting racist rhetoric that was poisoning his community, 9500 Liberty examines the process by which well meaning (but severely misguided) citizens got local politicians to pass an immigration resolution that did more harm than good. Among the key players are:
  • Greg Letiecq, a blogger/activist who is also a member of the Prince William County Republican Committee and Virginia Citizens Defense League (a gun rights organization). As President of Help Save Manassas and Save The Old Dominion (two organizations he founded to help reduce the number of undocumented immigrants living in the area), Letiecq used his blog (Black Velvet Bruce Li) and his skills as a programmer to foment resentment of immigrants.
  • Corey A. Stewart, the Chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, and a staunch Republican who was so convinced of the righteousness of Letiecq's efforts that he pushed through the resolution without performing due diligence to see what the economic impact would be for taxpayers in Prince William County.
  • Col. Charlie T. Deane, the local police chief. A member of the Prince William County Police Department since 1970, Deane tried to educate the Board of Supervisors and other parts of the community about unintended consequences that might arise from the proposed "Probable Cause" standard for mandatory immigration status checks on those who lived and worked in Prince William County.
  • Gaudencio Fernandez, a Mexican-American man who became a U.S. citizen during the 1980s. Having raised three children in the community, he works as a home improvement contractor.
  • Alanna Almeda, a former computer programmer who is a livelong Republican and evangelical Christian. Frustrated by Letiecq's influence on the Board of Supervisors, she was eventually inspired to provide an alternative voice and launch a blog called
  • Elena Schlossberg, a former supporter of Corey Stewart who, on April 1, 2008, stood before the Board of Supervisors and took its chairman to task for his intimidation tactics. Together with Alanna Almeda, she helped to launch
Perhaps the most unintended consequence of the resolution that Corey Stewart pushed through his county's Board of Supervisors was that many of the undocumented workers who had lived in Prince William County picked up and left town. As more and more homes were either sold, abandoned, or foreclosed upon, property values decreased at the same time Stewart was trying to raise property taxes to pay for the police forces necessary to enforce the immigration resolution.

The immigrants who left town used to spend money at local businesses (which are now hurting). In the time since the resolution first passed, the economy has taken a nosedive and many of these businesses are in severe financial trouble -- a classic case of "Beware your fantasy, it might just come true!"

9500 Liberty is particularly timely in showing what happens when an angry blogger with a grudge uses his Internet presence as a bully pulpit to terrorize part of the local community. This is an important documentary for community activists as well as innocent onlookers. This film does an excellent job of showcasing the anger and bitterness driving the nationalist movement and where it can lead. Here's the trailer:

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Crossing over from Republican expressions of racism to homegrown homophobia, a poignant new documentary demonstrates how the fight for marriage equality can have a ripple effect in small towns across America. Out In The Silence (which will receive its West Coast premiere at the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival ) offers a fascinating look at how community organizing and honest attempts to reach across the divide can build understanding and help break down traditional barriers built on fear, loathing, and ignorance.

Filmmaker Joe Wilson

Joe Wilson's documentary (which will be shown on many PBS stations across the nation this year) shows exactly how the personal becomes political and what is political becomes intensely personal. As the filmmaker explains:
"Out in the Silence is not a film I set out to make. It’s not a story of the God-hates-fags or the kids-who-get-indoctrinated-at-Jesus-camp type. It’s not about attention-seeking hate mongers, angry protesters, or the extremes of any side.

It’s at once more troubling and more hopeful than that.

The idea for the film emerged after witnessing the emotional response ignited by my same-sex wedding announcement in the local newspaper. I realized that if I didn’t acknowledge the controversy, it would simply slip into history’s ether. And I refused to let silence settle over my hometown in the faded hills of northwestern Pennsylvania, affirming and perpetuating the fear and isolation I knew too well as a young gay boy in a stiflingly anti-gay world.
The film is aimed at breaking the mold of the traditional documentary; it is not solely observational. As filmmaker, as protagonist, as insider and outsider, I use the camera to empower, to challenge, to confront, and to look beneath the veneer of the fragile balance of order in my small hometown.

It is a deeply personal social issue documentary that dramatically illustrates the challenges that exist in rural America and the transformation that is possible when those who have long been constrained by a traditional code of silence summon the courage to break it.

Most of the film is based on intimate vérité footage of my own interactions with Oil City residents. The camera captures the raw emotions of those who have used my wedding announcement to publicly denounce and denigrate gay and lesbian people. I engage these folks in public parks and on city streets, in churches and schools, kitchens and living rooms, at community parades, and at government hearings to try to get to the core of the misunderstandings.

In most cases, there is no room to maneuver but, in a few, something happens. Hatred’s illogic starts to crumble and transformation begins.

A unique element of the film is footage shot by CJ, a tormented gay teen, on the camcorder I gave to him. CJ’s footage provides a painful glimpse into his very private suffering, as well as comedic relief during juvenile attempts to entertain himself and his friends in a boring small town.
This provocative footage is juxtaposed with images of beautiful pastoral landscapes and abandoned factories, old family pictures and home movies, graphics of newspaper text and radio program sound bites, and the hauntingly raw music of transgender singer/songwriter Namoli Brennet.

The film creates a dynamic and compelling audio-visual landscape of a small town as it struggles with its own identity.

Through this experience, I have come to believe that by seeking out, witnessing, telling, and retelling the stories of those who break the silence, we increase the possibility that others will do so as well."
The story of why CJ Springer was forced to withdraw from his high school (and his mother's attempts to stand up for her son) is one which has been replicated in many a small town across America. A subplot involves the efforts of a local lesbian couple (Roxanne Hitchcock and Linda Henderson) to restore the Latonia Theatre (Oil City's art deco movie palace) to its former glory.

Roxanne Hitchcock and Linda Henderson

The bilious presence of Diane Gramley (the head of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania who also has a local radio program) is felt throughout the film. A woman who constantly warns people about the dangers and inherent evil of homosexuals moving in to take over their town -- and who goes so far as to advise the local business community to boycott Hitchcock and Henderson's preservation efforts -- frequently invokes images of Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz.

During the course of the film, Wilson's persistence helps to build a friendship with the Reverend Mark Micklos of Trinity Evangelical Congregational Church and his wife, Diana. Out In The Silence ends on a note of hope, with the American Civil Liberties Union having helped Kathy Springer negotiate a settlement with the local school district and CJ the proud owner of a new car. If you can't make it to the screening on June 25th at the Roxie, you can order the DVD here.
In the meantime, here's the trailer:

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One of the more interesting films scheduled for the Frameline 34 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival evolved from a theater piece conceived by Rikki Beadle-Blair (who wrote, produced, and directed Metrosexuality back in 2001). After two years as story editor on Noah's Arc, he wrote and directed a play about homophobia in the hiphop scene for the Theatre Royal Stratford East called Bashment.

In 2007, Beadle-Blair adapted his screenplay for Stonewall for a stage production that he took to the Edinburgh Festival. As part of that year's Queer Up North Festival, he hosted a night of queer hiphop at at Manchester's Contact Theatre. That fall, he was commissioned by Manchester's arts organization queerupnorth and Stonewall (a marriage equality organization) to develop a play about queer bullying in schools. After touring Great Britain, FIT was filmed with its original cast in September of 2009. A prolific actor, director, writer, photographer, and choreographer, Beadle-Blair stresses that:
"I'm the luckiest boy in the world. I work every day with people I love, making theatre, film, music, and art. Every now and then, people come along and watch. Our company, Team Angelica, performs regularly at the Tristan Bates in Covent Garden and in various venues around the country. It is packed with beautiful, talented people. I thank my lucky stars every day for their hard work, talent, and the inspiration they give me.
Rikki Beadle-Blair
I want to make movies that change lives. Movies that allow us to fly and crawl and feel every living emotion and walk in every living footstep. I want to make art that connects us all -- the way the air connects us: universal, unjudgmental and free."
Aimed at students in grades 7 through 9, FIT was designed to complement some of the objectives for Personal, Health, and Social Education (PHSE) and classes in Citizenship that are outlined in Britain's National Curriculum. The teacher's resource that was developed to prepare students for performances of the touring production could be of use in schools far and wide.

Even if gay pupils are not directly experiencing bullying, they are learning in an environment where homophobic language and comments are commonplace. According to the teacher's guide for FIT, homophobic bullying has reached near-epidemic levels in Britain’s schools:
  • 98% of young gay people hear the phrases “That’s so gay” or “You’re so gay” in school (over 80% hear such comments often or frequently).
  • 97% of pupils hear other insulting homophobic remarks, such as “poof,” “dyke,” “rug-muncher,” “queer,” and “bender” (more than 70% of gay pupils hear those phrases used often or frequently).
  • 85% of young gay people attending faith schools have experienced homophobic bullying.
  • 65% of young lesbian, gay, and bisexual pupils have experienced direct bullying.
  • More than 60% of gay young people are likely not to have been bullied in schools that have said homophobic bullying is wrong.
  • More than 50% of lesbian and gay pupils don’t feel as if they are able to be themselves at school.
  • 35% of gay pupils do not feel safe or accepted at school.
  • 23% of young gay people have been told that homophobic bullying is wrong in their school.
Stephen Hoo as Ryan

In FIT, Beadle-Blair plays Loris, a dance instructor who, after inheriting a group of delinquent students who are perceived to be hopeless discipline problems, starts training them in dance movements with the understanding that they are going to learn Shakespeare in motion. The theme of his main riff is taken from Hamlet's famous soliloquy: "To Be Or Not To Be." Among his new students are:
  • Karmel (Sasha Frost), a beautiful young lesbian whose parents (a black father and white mother) are extremely homophobic.
  • Lee (Lydia Eleni Toumazuo), a Greek tomboy who has been Karmel's best friend since childhood.
  • Tegs (Duncan MacInnes), a shy intellectual type who is often protected by Jordan.
  • Jordan (Ludvig Bonin), a quiet black student who was adopted by white parents.
  • Isaac (Jay Brown), a tough, homophobic teenager whose father often gets violent and throws him out of their home.
  • Jonesy (Michael Warburton), Isaac's more tolerant red-headed friend.
  • Ryan (Stephen Hoo), a severely closeted Asian student who acts out by beating up Jordan (on whom he has a crush).
A powerfully conceived and acted film, FIT tackles issues of bullying and homophobia better than most documentaries. Not only does it show young LGBT people finding strength in a support group, it offers a solid demonstration of the power of the arts to change minds (especially in teenagers whose hormones are raging out of control). FIT will receive its U.S. premiere at the Castro Theatre on Saturday, June 26. Here's the trailer:

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