[UPDATE from Project Director David Weissman, April 2017: I’ve thus far shot seven “conversations” with gay men aged 72 – 86 at the time of filming. I’m an on-camera participant in all but the first one that was shot.
Five of the seven are in fine-cut stage or completed, ranging from 50 – 75 minutes in length.
Each is edited by a different young gay man—two of whom are in their 20s, and three in their 30s. The mentoring, and cross-generational aspects of this project, which were not part of my original proposal, have been extraordinarily rich.
I’ve already done four film festival presentations of the work – at QDoc in Portland, Frameline in San Francisco, at the Oslo Fusion Film Festival in Norway, and at the Twist Seattle Queer Film Festival. These have been hour-long programs of excerpt of the various elders (two in Portland, four at all the others) followed by discussions with the editors, and—in San Francisco—with two of the elders. Response, and the discussions at each of these screenings has been incredibly enthusiastic.]
Conversations With Gay Elders
a documentary project
David Weissman, producer/director
Conversations With Gay Elders will be a series of single-character video documentaries of varying length, focused on older gay men. In addition to creating a repository of passing history, it will also function as a vehicle for facilitating intergenerational dialogue and understanding.
The project and its genesis.
I’ve often felt as if AIDS made me a premature elder in my community. This is directly related to the deaths of so many men in the generation just above me—men who would have been my mentors, and whose memory I’ve wanted to preserve. Further, my experience of the epidemic was very much colored by having Holocaust history in my own family, and the awareness that gave me of the cathartic and long-lasting value of sharing painful, inspiring, and complex stories between generations. And thus I began to make historical documentaries.
Conversations With Gay Elders is a documentary storytelling project focused on older gay men—initially those currently in their 70s and older. Emotionally reflective, historically informative interviews will capture histories of men whose gay lives long preceded Stonewall, and also those of the Gay Liberation generation. Inescapably, these men are also survivors of the AIDS era. I focus specifically on gay men (instead of the wider LGBT community) because this is the world that I know best and with which, as a 60-year-old gay man myself, I can engage as a peer rather than as an observer.
These may range in length from 10–90 minutes, as appropriate, and will be produced in documentary style, not simply as oral histories.
This idea emerges from my experiences over the past decade in making two major documentaries addressing San Francisco queer history. I’ve realized that unlike most minority groups, gay men (as with others in the LGBT spectrum) can’t readily learn our culture and history from our primarily non-gay parents. Additionally, for a number of complex reasons, communication between generations of gay men is often difficult; and combined with all the losses from AIDS in the 1980s and the vastly different social and political climate in this era of gay marriage, the continuity of gay culture and history risks being lost. Existing and future generations of gay men will have little direct access to the stories and wisdom of the elders who created the world gay youth may take for granted. This gap is already enormous and will inevitably widen over time.
While the core intention is to create universally and permanently accessible archives of these histories, this project has tremendous organic flexibility for expansion and alteration over time. Obviously, there will be an almost endless supply of unique personalities to capture, and the passage of time will inevitably shape that evolution. Collaborations with academic and other public institutions can result in exhibitions, in-person presentations, and the creation of broad-content and multi-format archives. And the interviewing itself can expand to embody other types of intergenerational exchange, turning the process itself into a multidimensional mentoring process. The collaborations will come a little further on in the process, but I am already in discussions with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Frank Smigiel, Curator of Film and Performance) about a public component in 2017 or 2018 in conjunction with an artist fellowship program at the museum.
My background as an artist and activist, and how that pertains to this project.
I’ve made two historical documentaries—The Cockettes (2002, codirector Bill Weber), recounting the rise and fall of San Francisco’s theatrical troupe of hippies and drag queens in the early 1970s; and We Were Here (2011), chronicling the community history of AIDS in San Francisco. Both were catalyzed by similar impulses—these were stories which I felt needed to be told, and that if I didn’t tell them, probably no one else would. This project is similarly motivated. I frequently find myself entranced in conversation with gay elders, thinking “Damn, someone really needs to interview this person!”
I think one of my strengths as a filmmaker, particularly reflected in We Were Here, is my “casting.” One doesn’t usually use that expression with a documentary, but there are many great stories out there, not as many great storytellers. A great interview requires chemistry that can be created between interviewer and interviewee—involving mutual respect, trust, and insight. Choosing subjects for an interview often means recognizing stories, and personalities, that someone else might not notice, and having good intuition for that chemistry.
The interviews I conducted for We Were Here were all around 3 hours long, and less than 20 minutes of each were used in the film. The individual interviews were excerpted to serve the larger story. In this current project, the focus is on capturing the essence and complexity of each individual’s life journey as a gay man.
The interviews will initially by conducted by me—this is where my creativity, my life experience, and my activism intersect most powerfully. Over time, I will use this process to work with both youth and elders to engage with the experience of being both interviewer and interviewee—which are of course fundamental life skills.
Why this? Why now?
For LGBT people of the pre-Stonewall era, the advances in visibility, acceptance, and legal rights are mind-boggling. Similarly, for LGBT youth coming of age today, the struggles of prior generations are either fundamentally unknown or unimaginable. As mentioned above, the LGBT community is one of the only minority groups that can’t easily learn its history and culture from family, and there is a tremendous wealth of memory and experience that will be lost when those elders who have stories are gone. Many gay men of my generation fondly remember being “mentored” by older gay men—in navigating the obstacles created by homophobia, as well as in accessing the unique riches of our identities as gay men. Many gay elders who survived AIDS avoid talking about the past because there is frequently so much pain involved, combined with a fear that talking about the past makes them seem old. Many young men do have curiosity about the lives of those who preceded them but don’t know how to ask or know what may be inappropriate or insensitive. This has enormous resonance for me in relation to the undiscussed Holocaust history in my family. And there is a great deal of underlying fear of awkwardness, particularly around sexuality, that keeps older and younger gay men from fraternizing.
AIDS is a huge part of our history, but a very limited part. The pre-Stonewall generation will be the last generation of gay men to have been almost universally stigmatized, criminalized, and officially deemed “sick.” It is paramount that their stories be preserved.
How will this project manifest in the broader community?
I’ve been both a chronicler of, and participant in, much of the cultural and political ferment of the past 50 years. While I am primarily known as a filmmaker, I see myself as an activist, historian, and storyteller—this is the context of my filmmaking. In many ways, this is the perfect next project—embodying all of those aspects of me, along with my deep historical rootedness in this community.
Conversations With Gay Elders is very much a process-oriented project. It will evolve organically. This is the most exciting aspect of it for me—it will enable creativity and activism to cross-fertilize and blossom. The filmmaking/storytelling component is geared toward creating a long-lasting historical record that will become increasingly valuable over time. And it will also serve as the vehicle for working directly with both elders and youth, with academia, and in arts contexts to provoke historical inquiry and conversation in both LGBT and wider community contexts.
What Are The Goals?
Two intersecting elements contributed greatly to the effectiveness of my film We Were Here. The intense interviewing process helped the interviewees access memories and emotions that had not been similarly accessible to them previously. Interviewee Daniel Goldstein has said that he had never felt quite so “listened to” in his life. And because this self-discovery process was so tangible to audiences, many commented that watching We Were Here invited them into a deep connection not only with the people on-screen but also into their own emotional journey in unexpected ways.
With Conversations With Gay Elders, I want to focus that interview/documentation process on deeply capturing the essence of individual gay men’s personal journeys through much harsher times, and how it shaped them. If one is open to it, being well interviewed can offer an unequaled opportunity for self-reflection, and that self-reflection, when well presented, can offer an unequaled opportunity for viewers to gain insight in a multitude of ways.
The core objective is the creation of a repository of these histories, in documentary form, and that they should be made universally and easily-accessible in cooperation with appropriate institutions going forward.
My personal motivation.
I’ve made two highly acclaimed movies; I’m not driven by any great ego need to prove anything anymore. But I am strongly motivated by my politics to take on projects I’m passionate about, and by a commitment to live my life contributing to social justice in whatever ways I can.
I’m a gay man beginning to enter my own elder years. I have a richly intergenerational social life and have been increasingly involved in sharing my work and lecturing on college campuses and other public venues. I’m acutely appreciative of the presence of elders in my own life, particularly considering how many didn’t survive AIDS. With this project I want to honor their legacy, and also gift posterity with the history and wisdom they can share.
Who will benefit from the project?
I’m a big believer in the potential rippling-out impact of social-change action, whether it be large scale art or activism, or a small gesture of interpersonal kindness. So my gut says, “Everyone will benefit!” But the heart of my intention is to honor and preserve the stories of the last generation of completely stigmatized gay men, so that future generations can understand how the circumstances of their world came to be.