Whenever we choose to watch a documentary instead of a fictional film, our expectations change in tandem. Whether we choose a socially compelling work, like last year’s Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side,” or a more trivial-themed piece like “The King of Kong,” we sit back, but don’t relax too much, since we are there to learn.
But what a treat it is when a film like Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” comes along to entertain as much as it informs. The best nonfiction films move at the pace of a brisk narrative and make us forget that we are expanding our knowledge. And what a pleasant surprise it is to learn that Daniel Karslake’s “For the Bible Tells Me So,” a documentary featuring religious parents of gay children and now available on DVD, moves at such a pace, which makes its take on the subject all the more compelling.
Karslake first researched the subject when filming a segment about it for the PBS series “In the Life.” When he received an email message in response to the program, he knew his work was far from done. As he relates in a video interview included on the “For the Bible” DVD, the email from a gay youth in Iowa read, “Last week I bought the gun. Yesterday, I wrote the note. Last night I happened to see your show on PBS, and just knowing that some day, somewhere, I might be able to go back into a church with my head held high[,] I dropped the gun in the river. My mom never has to know [about the gun].”
The email message overwhelmed Karslake, for whom the show’s content was quiet personal, and he soon began working on his broad-scoped documentary. The project required extensive research and interviewing, along with Karslake’s own shopping for funds, but he wanted to open up conversation about a misunderstood topic: Christian views on homosexuality. It’s obvious that the issue’s importance goes far beyond his work, as Karslake discusses his interactions with the families in “For the Bible” with passion, zeal and, at times, tears.
“My perception of [the discussion of religion and homosexuality] was a lot of insulting and yelling from both sides,” Karslake said in a recent phone interview. “The gay community [was] ripping up Christians as ‘hateful bigots,’ and Christians reacted by saying gay people were condemned and going to Hell. It didn’t feel like anything was being accomplished [. . .] and that silence is really deadly. I wanted to make a family film about families so that non-gay people who see the film can identify with one of the [religious parents in the film].”
The opening clip is great. Can you tell me how you discovered this footage and why you chose it for the opening?
I hired an amazing researcher to find me clips, and I talked to her extensively about Anita Bryant [the Southern Baptist singer]. She had been a watershed person in the rise of the religious right. Her attacks on the homosexual community in the late 1970s really made the gay community realize that if they didn’t get together and address these things, they’re going to travel like wildfire. The fear that she was spreading would ruin lives. She motivated the gay community to come together.
When I saw the footage of the press conference from the 70’s [now at the beginning of “For the Bible”], I remembered that I was too young at the time to know about [Bryant]. I knew I didn’t like her, but I didn’t know why. I wasn’t conscious about my sexuality at that point, but I remembered that I didn’t want to watch her on those orange juice commercials. [Laughs] But even though I didn’t like her, I found myself immediately feeling bad for her [when first seeing the footage]. After she’s attacked with a pie, someone tries to block her from the camera, and her husband says, “No, she’s fine,” and then he forces her to say a prayer [for the gay pie-thrower]. But before she does, she has this snappy, almost bitchy comment: “Well, at least it’s a fruit pie.” [The clip] took me on such a journey – in a space of about 15 seconds, I went from kind of despising her, to feeling badly for her, to hearing that snide comment, and I thought – whoa, true colors. As soon as I saw it, I knew that this was starting the movie. I wanted to find something that would knock [viewers] off their center. I had to fight my production team to use it – they thought it was too incendiary.
It sets a great pace for the film. I can see why you consider yourself a fan of Michael Moore.
I’m a fan of his earlier stuff more than his later work. I didn’t want to make a “Fahrenheit 911,” obviously. I found that even though I am politically where he is, and as a viewer I like that film, I did not want this film to be that polemical, and too opinionated. Also, people always ask why I’m not in the film. I knew that I wanted to make a film without any voiceover. It’s more challenging to let the stories tell themselves, and I didn’t want people to feel that I was telling them what to think about a situation, but let them hear people talk.
You do a great job of laying down exposition in this film without voiceover. Did you have this planned before you started?
In my training at PBS, I found that the most compelling storytelling is when the subjects themselves lead you down their journey. I wanted to do everything I could to make the audience feel like they are part of the story and hearing it out of the mouths of the people who experienced it. People are very sensitive about this issue, and they watch and listen to everything that’s said in a very skeptical way. The best way to try to get around that was to let everyone in the film speak for themselves.
Did you try to direct your questions to interviewees to get this information?
I was very conscious during my interviews, and they were very long, usually about four, five, or six hours. I would have careful questions and listen carefully to how they responded, which was always a surprise. I couldn’t plan to get too much. You can preinterview all you want, but when the camera’s rolling it’s a different story.
Sometimes I was completely shocked, especially by the Poteats [an African American family featured the film]. The mother, out of nowhere, started talking about how she had been too concerned with how her [Lesbian] daughter Tonia was having sex, and that she had to get over that. And I wanted to cry, because that is a huge issue for 90% of the people who have a problem with gays. She realized it while watching Phil Donahue, and it changed everything for her.
Going into the editing process, I knew what was going to begin the film, and what the last shot would be. The last thing is Phil and Randi Reitan, and he’s says that if someone told him that he could have a wand to make [their son, Jake] straight when he first “came out,” he thinks he would have used it at first. But when he thinks about it now, he says that no way would he ever do it. [Jakes’ sexuality] is part of who he is. And soon as he said it, I thought, That’s the final moment of the film.
Jake and the rest of the gay children in the film are all very successful – or the ones who are alive are, anyway. Did you plan to feature only successful gay children?
My choices were much more about the parents than the kids. Obviously, the kids are all there [in the film], but you see much more of the parents. For example, you see much more of David and Brenda Poteat than you see of Tonia. You see much more of Phil and Randi Reitan than you really see of Jake. You obviously never see Anna. . . and you see a lot of [Jane and Dick] Gephart. You do see more of [Bishop] Gene Robinson than his parents, but that’s because he’s sort of a superstar [as the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop]. He allowed me to be the one person to tell his story on film, so I couldn’t ignore [his groundbreaking story]. But mostly, I wasn’t looking for successful gay kids who had it all together. Really, I was looking for five sets of parents who are very religious and involved in whatever faith community they are in. I knew they’d all be Christian, because that’s what I wanted to focus on. And I wanted them to be from different parts of the country and from different denominations, so that I had a broad spectrum in the film. I wanted audiences to find someone from their faith tradition in the film to identify with.
Were there any threads you followed that you couldn’t use – any other families?
Oh, yeah. I spoke with an endless number of families. I shot, to some extent, about eight families. People come across differently on film. There was one set of parents that completely froze on camera, and it just didn’t work. The other two just didn’t mesh with the other families. And I knew I didn’t want any more than five, which is a lot already. With my editor, I got to a certain point where we knew it would be the five [families now in the film]. There wasn’t a lot of overlap, with denominations and parts of the country. There were a lot of parts to the film that fell away because of time. My first cut of the film was four and a half hours. And Nancy [Kennedy, the film’s editor] said [to me], “Oh boy, do you have a lot to learn. We have to cut more than half of this film.” At that point I couldn’t imagine what we could cut. It was all such good footage.
Did you consider including more tragic stories besides Anna Wallner’s?
I’ve been asked a lot why I didn’t include a story of complete estrangement. That’s very common too. For me as a filmmaker, I feel like I’ve seen that, a lot. I’ve seen “Family Fundamentals,” Arthur Dong’s film. There are a number of [documentaries] and narrative features about that. I thought, that’s not what this is about.
I agree – one negative thread is really all you need here.
Yes – and many people of faith who find out they have a gay person in their family think they have a choice to make: they can either embrace their faith, or embrace their child, but they cannot do both. That’s a horrible message [the media] sends to people of faith. People like the Poteats decide to stay in their faith and embrace their kid by actually opening the Bible and looking at it rather than believe what they’ve been told [about it].
Did you question whether you should include the images of hate-crime violence during the editing process?
I always knew I’d include a discussion of hate crimes, and how this homophobia that starts in the pulpit often culminates into violence against gay and lesbian people. I really struggled with showing the violent photos – and there are only about four of them – and the photo of Anna just after she hung herself. It was heart-wrenching for me. When Mary Lou [Wallner, her mother], gave me those photos, we had been gathering hundreds of family photos [at her house] for the documentary. At about two in the morning, she was about to go to bed, and she came in and gave me this envelope [with the coroner’s photos of Anna inside]. She said that she never looked at them, and will never look at them, but that she had a feeling I’d need one or two. And if I did, that I should use them. She had this trust in me. Then she went to bed, and I cried. It was so upsetting, moving, hideous, loving.
And then I looked at them, and my first response was, absolutely not, because Mary Lou is going to see this movie! But then a year and a half later, when we were editing the suicide part, I told my editor, Nancy, that I had this envelope of pictures. At first she agreed, no way, but the next day she said, well, let’s just look at them. And so we looked at them and couldn’t decide. Over the next two days, I would stay up the whole night, and then come in and say – you know what, let’s use it. But she’d say, I decided we shouldn’t. We constantly disagreed over it.
Then one night, a woman on the [Manhattan] subway – and you know if you’ve ever been there that this never happens – she said to me, “You look really overwrought about something. Are you OK?” [Laughs] So I described the whole situation. I explained that in the photo [we were thinking of using], you could see where the noose was around [Anna’s] neck. She said that she had one thing to say about that. Her teenage daughter had went to see the number one film in the country that weekend, “Saw 3.” Her daughter seeing all the fake killing disturbed this woman, since [her daughter’s] being desensitized. She said, “use it.” The door opened, and she got off the subway.
At the Sundance screening, when Mary Lou first saw the film, I sat next to her and said I would squeeze her hand before the photo appeared. Then as it was coming, I felt ill. And when I squeezed her hand, she did not look away. But she squeezed my hand harder than it’s ever been squeezed. Within about five minutes, she leaned over and said, “You made the right decision.” [Daniel pauses, sobs with a weary breath] I had to get up and leave. I was sick worrying about using it for nine months. And I needed her to say that.
At screenings, she’s been asked if it’s hard for her to see [the photo]. She says: Absolutely, but it’s absolutely the right thing [for the film]. People need to get that she is gone. And that I killed her.
Mary Lou must have been the toughest interview for you.
That’s hard to say. Hers and many others were amazing. The day I spent with Desmond Tutu was absolutely life-changing. He is the closest to God on earth that I have ever experienced.
Were you tempted to follow Jake Reitan more? – he is an amazing presence in the film.
Of course, and I did. He did this amazing thing called the “Equality Ride,” where he recruited college students to ride on a bus and visit college campuses that expressly forbid gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students from attending. All the military academies, even though many are publicly funded. And Falwell’s place – Liberty University; Regent, Pat Robertson’s college; Brigham Young – all of those. [The bus] would go to the colleges and ask to have a conversation with students and faculty about GLBT people. Often they would get arrested. I did shoot some of the “Equality Ride.” I went to Liberty University, and to West Point, where Jake was arrested. He is his own documentary.
But I always knew that the film had to be more about the parents. And I wanted to give the [gay and lesbian kids] out there hope by seeing good parents. The religious parents in my film change and transform.