ONE OF THE REASONS I love film is the medium’s power for storytelling. Novels leave it up to the reader to imagine the worlds contained within the author’s words, but with a movie, the director, screenwriter and everyone else involved shape a precise representation of a collective vision, and thus film often offers a storyteller the most power in weaving a tale.
Often the most powerful stories in cinema are those told in documentaries. While narrative film may seek to reveal truths about reality through fantastical flourishes or provide an escape from the world around us, documentaries give voice to those who we often cannot hear and a face to communities that we may not see. Viewers sometimes think of documentaries as boring, educational and bland – the cinematic analogue to a textbook, perhaps – but when a documentary is well-crafted, and its subject worthy, there are few genres that can pack a comparable emotional punch or informative heft.
Some of the best LGBTQ movies released every year are documentaries, and adding these movies to one’s Netflix queue isn’t only worthwhile, but perhaps essential to being an erudite, active participant in our community. It’s too easy to become deeply entrenched in our local communities, our circles of friends and regular haunts. It’s important to be involved in this way, but we should also be attuned to the experiences of sexual minorities elsewhere in the world and to the experiences of those in our past in order to understand how we came to be where we are today.
Just this year, documentaries have shed light on subcultures of the LGBTQ population that often get overlooked. Out Here takes a look at LGBTQ farmers from around the country, the rare members of sexual minorities who don’t heed the pull of teeming urban communities. PJ Raval’s stunning Before You Know It focuses on three elderly gay men, but makes larger observations about what it means to be old and homosexual, to be searching for love, companionship and meaning in one’s twilight years. Both reveal that we are more diverse than we realize and encourage us to reach out to those we might ignore, or not even know.
Other essential documentaries focus on social issues. Last year, two great docs focused on the violence and persecution facing sexual minorities in Uganda: Call Me Kuchu features footage from deep in the trenches, chronicling the lives and efforts of Ugandans who stand strong in the face of possible imprisonment and death every day, while God Loves Uganda starts on our shores, revealing the way America exports its culture wars to other nations and sows seeds of hate in international communities. Watching these films makes one thankful to live in a relatively tolerant country, and will hopefully galvanize viewers to take action in the face of injustice, even when it’s happening half a world away.
Documentaries also provide a way to construct queer history, bringing forth stories that remained out of the public view as they were unfolding, as well as piecing together major events in a comprehensive, illuminating manner. How to Survive a Plague is a meticulous account of the efforts of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group) during the AIDS epidemic, while The Times of Harvey Milk provides an in-depth look at California’s first openly gay elected official. Stonewall Uprising chronicles the defining moment of the modern day gay liberation movement, and the media’s treatment of gays and lesbians at the time.
To say one doesn’t like documentaries only reveals that one hasn’t explored the genre enough; documentaries contain as much variety as narrative film. There are comedies, tragedies, horrors and romances to be found in the frames of nonfiction film. Most importantly, there are stories that need to be told and deserve to be heard.