Doc Star of the Month: Pat Henschel, 'A Secret Love'
When one thinks of a coming-out story these days, an LGBTQ teenager proudly declaring their identity on Instagram might immediately spring to mind. Which wasn't the case for the two women at the center of Chris Bolan's heartfelt doc A Secret Love (prods.: Ryan Murphy, Beech Hill, Alexa L. Fogel and Brendan Mason; exec. prod.: Jason Blum) streaming on Netflix starting April 29.
The film is a decades-spanning portrait of the director's great-aunt Terry Donahue, a member of the women's pro baseball league that inspired the 1992 film A League of Their Own, and Pat Henschel, the hockey player she fell in love with way back in 1947. Over six decades later, facing their mortality and the challenges of aging, the two make the difficult decision to let the entire family in on the fact that they've always been more than just roommates. Which launches the couple into an unfamiliar—though ultimately exhilarating—gay marriage-accepting world.
Though Terry Donahue died in March of 2019 at the age of 93, her nonagenarian wife Pat is still very much alive and speaking out about her life (and the love of her life). And most fortunately for Documentary, she was willing to be featured as April's Doc Star of the Month.
DOCUMENTARY: So were you always aware that you'd be starring in a feature-length documentary, or did this begin as a home movie project?
PAT HENSCHEL: Yes, we knew it was going to be a documentary, or something, and I am so pleased that everyone seems to like it. I really can't believe that all of this is happening! Chris worked so hard putting this all together, and I loved how we got to see him all the time.
D: So both you and Terry were onboard with being filmed from the start?
PH: Yes. Chris asked us, and we told him we would do it. We had no problem with it. Terry and I laughed about it; we simply couldn't understand why anyone would want to see us! We wondered why anyone would be interested in hearing our story.
D: There's an irony in the fact that the film takes such an intimate look into the relationship of two women who spent their entire lives trying to stay out of the spotlight. So was being on camera distressing, or liberating, or maybe both?
PH: It didn't trouble us at all. They got us all wired up, and we totally forgot that we were wired. Terry and I have always been very outgoing. Once we’d told the family we had no problem talking about [the relationship] at all. We didn’t have to hide anymore, and felt at ease talking after we’d told people. We had fun telling our stories to Chris!
D: Which stories specifically?
PH: Like kissing in a sandstorm, and meeting each other in a church and almost getting locked in!
D: The film contains some truly beautiful scenes, but also a number that are painful to watch. Which scenes do you particularly love and which do you find difficult to view?
PH: I just loved watching the ones where I was with Terry and we were having fun. I really love that picture at the end, with the two of us embracing; it is my favorite picture. I think the hardest thing for me to watch was Terry deteriorating. I could see that Parkinson's was starting to destroy her. It was happening right in front of my eyes, and it was so hard to watch.
D: So did you learn anything from the experience of participating in this film?
PH: Oh my. It was very nice to be in. We had fun with Chris, and we had a wonderful time meeting the crew; they became friends. The one thing we couldn’t believe is how much work was involved in doing something like this—[I thought], I hope to see this thing before I die!
D: Did it change any of your relationships in any way?
PH: My relationship with Chris was always very special, so that didn't change. My relationship with [niece] Diana [Bolan] really changed. I guess we just really never had a chance to spend time together, just the two of us. Diana and I are now very very close, and I know she feels the same.
D: What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
PH: I want them to be happy to see us living our lives normally and going along. I hope that it makes them feel good. It might even help people who are trying to hide their sexual orientations; I hope it helps. Finding a true love like this is like a song. It’s beautiful.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.