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1977's Word Is Out would be an important picture if it were just half as well made as it is. A labor of love and one of the few examples of an artistic success achieved in a "film collective" production system, the movie was made at a time when few or no films existed in which gay or lesbian people told their stories on film. Documentarian Peter Adair had investigated other minority groups, such as a closed religious community in West Virginia, but his ambition was to use film to bring the reality of gay lifestyles out in the open.
The movie isn't about sex, at least in the sense of sex acts. None of the people we see are exhibitionists appearing for the sake of sensation. Most of the 26 participants grew up before or during the middle 1960s when gay activism and gay rights had begun, and quite a few of them lived for years in a culture that shunned anything not oriented toward conformist heterosexuality. As one person says, gays and lesbians had no options and no societal sanctuary. Doctors considered them sick, laywers told them they were criminals and the churches condemned them as immoral.
Adair gathered a handful of people as enthused as he was about the project, and taught them the use of the camera and sound equipment. Everybody worked the tools and everybody conducted interviews. This created an atmosphere of trust and confidence with the camera subjects ... gays and lesbians, interviewed by their peers. Whether by luck or good judgment, the filmmakers obtained a wonderful set of interviews. The film's format does the rest. We don't meet furtive outsiders or desperate characters; they're people like anybody else, who have had to adjust to society's prejudices. Some have a great sense of humor, too.
The film shows a series of people recounting their experiences dealing with their sexual identities. We have individuals who married and had children, wondering all the while what was wrong with their lives. Some teens were helped by understanding parents while others had to come back home at some time in their lives and break the news. One woman returned from years in France to tell her family that she and her husband had broken up and she'd been living with another woman. One interesting lesbian couple both came from broken marriages and had to deal with doing what was best for their children in trying circumstances. More than one lesbian couple lives away from the city, where they feel more comfortable in their lifestyles. Among the men is an outgoing drama teacher and a guy who prefers to stay single and stick with physical relationships. One corporate executive seems well adjusted to being both gay and an active member of the establishment -- giving the lie to the notion that gays are maladjusted outsiders.
Not that everybody pictured is a shining success story. Younger people must remember that this was 1977 when community resistance and prejudice against gays was much higher than it is now. Some of these people show real scars. The very first interviewee is obviously very nervous and withdrawn, and prefers to keep a low profile as a stay-at-home type. Some of the others have developed tough skins, and the most sensitive young man, a Chinese-American, is clearly affected by years of negative experiences. More than one woman describes a sensation of utter joy upon discovering, after years of not being excited or moved by boy-girl teen activities, that happiness and fulfillment was possible for them. The interviewees are so honest and human in their responses that we respond to them as potential friends and maybe even family. Nobody seems to be selling a bill of goods. Although some of the interviewees are tentative in their speech, they all seem pleased to be putting their experiences on the public record. Many appear to be motivated by social conscience. They were isolated and had no way of knowing that their personal situations were not unique; the film will spread the word.
The filmmakers don't take many detours from the interview footage. We see some family picnics, the felling of a tree and two or three pleasant musical interludes. The interview surroundings are just wide enough to show us how these people are living. The finish uses scenes of a gay pride parade and a rally, both attended by thousands. One person puts forward the thought that it might be two or three generations before society has changed enough to allow the stigma and pain of "being different" to disappear. Another camera subject is a woman who went through terrible years in the army, where McCarthy-like purges resulted in many female soldiers being drummed out with dishonorable discharges. She feels that the tentative liberal atmosphere of 1977 could disappear -- another period of repression and persecution could be on the way at any time.
Millarium Zero's DVD of Word is Out uses a fine restoration performed by the UCLA Film Archive. A pre-release cut was about ten minutes longer, but the version presented here is the original 124-minute premiere cut. The color in the 16mm images looks quite good. The sound is remarkable for work done by what was essentially a first-time communal group of filmmakers -- Peter Adair must have been a good teacher.
The extras are more than self-congratulatory fluff. The main docu Word Is Out Then and Now: Thirty Years Later strengthens and rounds out the film, making this DVD a more satisfying experience than a theatrical revival screening. All but two of the participants still living come back to share their thoughts. All are pleased by the film's positive impact over the years. Younger gays and lesbians of today, one interviewee says, don't know what it was like to live in the earlier years of sometimes horrible repression. The drama teacher thinks he made an idiot of himself, which isn't true. The corporate executive laughs when he remembers that he was asked to participate, because the filmmakers "already had too many dykes in the woods". One couple has remained permanent while another more elderly partnership has been separated by death. Word is Out predates the AIDS epidemic, which decimated the gay population and tested the collective will of this minority. Near the end of the docu we see a role call of participants who have died in the 30-year interim. Causes of death are not given but we have to assume that AIDS was responsible in more than a few cases -- too many seem to have died before the age of 50.
Another anniversary collection of interview bites is gathered in a piece called Afterthoughts, and a special featurette Mariposa Film Group pays honor to filmmaker Peter Adair. The film's executive producer David Bohnett also offers his thoughts. Until the restoration Word Is Out had seen few recent screenings, perhaps because it was thought to be obsolete after the worst years of the AIDS epidemic. That's not at all the case -- it's still an extremely liberating and illuminating film.
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Word Is Out rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.