All in the Family
Arthur Dong Shows What Heroes and Villains Look Like
dir. Arthur Dong
Opens Fri Nov 1 at the Varsity.
In 1997's License to Kill, documentarian Arthur Dong interviewed inmates convicted of killing gay men, asking each the same question: What made you murder a gay person? Explaining their motives, a majority of the men pointed to their Christian upbringings and the words of the Holy Bible--a damning fact Dong continues to explore in his bracing new film, Family Fundamentals.
What happens when parents believe that their own kids represent the very element that will lead to the destruction of the human race? For an answer, Dong follows the lives of three gay Americans from strongly religious families--families that profess their love for their children while actively denouncing the sin of homosexuality. These denunciations range from personal correspondence (after coming out, film subject Brett Mathews received over 100 letters from his Mormon family, begging him to renounce his sinful ways) to proposed national policy (prior to his coming out, fellow subject Brian Bennett spent 15 years as the chief of staff and veritable son figure to the notoriously homophobic Republican senator Bob Dornan). But the effect of such double-edged love is singular. Weighing words of love against acts of hate, the film's gay subjects resolutely focus on the positive and hope for the best, maintaining their sanity and security through a provisional mash of faith, selective hearing, and dark humor.
To his great credit, Dong navigates these potentially melodramatic conflicts with a beautifully subtle hand. In one of the film's richest scenes, lesbian activist Susan Jester details her fundamentalist Christian mother's response to her coming out: Already active in her church, Susan's mother took up the torch for the homosexual-conversion movement, organizing conferences in collaboration with Exodus International and Focus on the Family. As Susan-the-activist blithely denounces her mother's Biblically mandated acts of bigotry, the audience gets a rare glimpse of the personal underbelly of political ideology. Beneath her lucid demeanor and "controversial" sexuality, Susan's just another daughter who can't understand her mother's refusal to accept who she is. Simply by adhering to their deepest beliefs, both mother and daughter are robbed of an irreplaceable relationship--a tragedy Arthur Dong captures in all its mundane, soft-spoken horror.
In the end, Family Fundamentals' conflict is irreconcilable, with both sides offering as evidence their deepest feelings, the deepest parts of themselves. It's the Christians' belief versus the gay folks' experience, and Dong closes his film with an uneasy truce. It's a perfect close for a beautiful documentary that deserves your attention.