Doc Star of the Month: Raymond Braun, 'State of Pride'
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising this month, a slew of films reflecting on that seminal event in LGBTQ history are, unsurprisingly, hitting screens from coast to liberal coast. What sets Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s State of Pride apart from this pack, though, is the doc’s firm focus forward, as the Oscar-winning duo turn their lens on the many young queer communities celebrating Pride today.
And not just the usual suspects—i.e., white cisgender gays and lesbians of means living in New York City and the Bay Area—that have historically been visible onscreen. Though San Francisco is indeed represented, its Pride is seen through the eyes of characters that include a recent immigrant from Syria who fled persecution for his sexuality. The filmmakers also travel to decidedly non-liberal Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Salt Lake City, Utah, encountering gay, lesbian and trans people of color (whose rural roots are as much a part of their identity as being queer) —and even meet with a disabled man who found coming out to be more frightening than losing the use of his legs. In other words, State of Pride—now streaming on YouTube as part of YouTube Originals—showcases an exciting variety of shades within the proverbial rainbow.
Also making State of Pride stand out is its earnest host on this cross-country journey, human rights activist Raymond Braun. The YouTube star serves less as onscreen interviewer than empathetic listener, allowing space for the people he lovingly greets to answer the profound question, “What does Pride mean to you?” in beautifully unpredictable ways. And because of this, Documentary is honored to celebrate Braun as our June “Doc Star of the Month.”
Documentary: How did you get involved in the project? Had you known the filmmakers beforehand?
Raymond Braun: I’ve always had a special connection to Pride. Growing up in a small, rural, conservative community in Ohio, I was in such awe the first time I attended Pride and experienced firsthand the magnitude of support, love and creative self-expression vibrant among LGBTQ people.
As a journalist I’ve always been fascinated by Pride as a sort of barometer, or looking glass, into what’s happening in communities across the country and around the world. You can pick any location on the map and ask yourself a few questions: Do they have a Pride? If so, who organizes it? How political is it? Who is most visible? Who feels included or excluded? What are the quirky customs and traditions that give the event local flavor? If the community doesn’t have a Pride, why is that?
The way a community responds to Pride tells you a lot about their values, and Pride often provides a very emotionally charged and resonant experience for LGBTQ people. Sometimes it’s cathartic, healing, affirming, exciting and joyful. Sometimes it’s alienating or inaccessible. As a storyteller/journalist/filmmaker, I found Pride to be a Holy Grail for exploring what’s happening at a political and cultural level across the country, in addition to being a poignant window into the lives of LGBTQ people.
Originally, I was pitching a show called United States of Pride. The log line was “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, but Small Town Prides.” I was inspired by this almost mythic story I heard in college about a gay employee at a 24-hour Walmart in rural North Dakota who used to organize LGBTQ social gatherings in an aisle at night because they didn’t have a local community center or gay bar. That image completely fascinated me. We know that LGBTQ people are truly everywhere, so what does it look like to create affirming and inclusive LGBTQ spaces when you don’t have the infrastructure and support of a cosmopolitan city?
I didn’t know Rob and Jeff personally before working on this film, but I was certainly familiar with their work. While I was still in the closet in high school I did a research project about LGBTQ history in my American History class because it bothered me that we only got a sentence about Stonewall in our textbook. I secretly began to study LGBTQ history, and the very first documentary I encountered in my research was The Times of Harvey Milk. I remember watching Rob’s speech when he became the first openly gay man to win an Academy Award for directing. When he thanked his partner onstage, that was a groundbreaking moment for LGBTQ representation in mainstream media.
Rob and Jeff have been inspirations throughout their career—the way they’ve used documentaries and storytelling to uplift important stories and shift culture. When I was developing this idea, my agent asked me, “If you could work with any director, who would it be?” I mentioned Rob and Jeff, almost as a joke, because I felt like they were out of my league. It turns out that my agency, WME, also reps Rob and Jeff. They set up a coffee, which began a long series of coffee dates, conversations and meetings to share ideas and flesh out whether they were interested. I remember flying to San Francisco for a breakfast meeting in the Castro, and pinching myself that we were talking LGBTQ history together in one of the most iconic neighborhoods in the world for our community. Once they signed on to do the project, they made it their own. It was an honor to go on the journey with them.
D: The film is a YouTube Original, and you’ve worked at YouTube yourself, so I’m wondering about the extent of your involvement in the production overall. I'm guessing Epstein and Friedman chose which characters to follow, but was there a process by which you got to know all these folks before actually meeting them on camera? Did you have a lot of input?
RB: I can’t say enough positive things about Rob and Jeff. In addition to being incredibly open and collaborative directors, they have also become personal friends and mentors. They were always open to my feedback in every step of the process. I was very involved with researching different Pride parades across the country and in choosing which characters to follow. I discovered and suggested several stories that ended up making it into the documentary— including those of Carson, Daroneshia, Kin and Nick. Also, Troye Sivan is a friend of mine, and I told him about the project in its earliest stages. He has always been a champion of the idea and the message we wanted to convey with the documentary. I’m so grateful he was so gracious with providing us the time and access to follow him for his headlining performance at Capital Pride.
Prior to this project, I’d never had the opportunity to be involved with editing and post-production for a project that I’m also featured in on camera. That was a new kind of dynamic for me, and it felt a bit odd giving notes on myself and my role in the documentary. I provided some notes and feedback on themes and story points, but Rob and Jeff really led the charge in crafting the magic of the film in the edit and post process. It was a treat for me to see how they distilled long, complex conversations and uncovered so many gems from our months-long shoot.
In terms of getting to know everyone, we wanted that process to play out organically while we filmed. I was friends with Carson through social media prior to working on this project, so we had built-in chemistry. With everyone else I was aware of their background and general thoughts on Pride, but we really got to know each other through the course of me following their journey to Pride. I have so many fun and meaningful memories with the participants of State of Pride, on and off camera. For example, the first night I was in Alabama, Daroneshia took me out on the town to check out a local drag show. We ended up going to CVS at three in the morning to get snacks, where we had a really long chat about her work and experiences in Alabama.
I call us the State of Pride family because we’ve all bonded through the experience of filming and attending Pride together. It’s been very meaningful and gratifying to see connections formed among everyone featured in the film. Everyone at Tuscaloosa Pride connected and kept in touch. In fact, MJ and Lindsey recently got married and had several State of Pride friends at their wedding! I love seeing Carson and Daroneshia liking and supporting each other’s content on social media. I can’t wait to see what everyone does in the future. I am so proud of them and endlessly grateful that they opened up their hearts and homes for this film.
D: You’re used to being on camera, so was this a relatively stress-free shoot? Or was being out of the director’s chair somewhat nerve-wracking? What were some of the more challenging aspects?
RB: Rob and Jeff create a very natural, open environment while filming. They have such a deep respect for the humanity and dignity of everyone they feature in their films. They don’t want to interfere with, choreograph or “produce” any aspect of someone’s experience. It’s all about showing up, asking thoughtful questions, immersing themselves in a person’s life, and then following their journey on their own terms, in their own words, on their own time. I love Rob and Jeff’s gentle and genuine curiosity for everyone they meet and the communities they navigate. They are also so brilliant and have so much knowledge about politics, activism and LGBTQ history. We had so many wide-ranging and fascinating conversations throughout the course of filming. I just completely trusted them and their vision, so I felt very comfortable whenever we were shooting. I loved every minute.
The biggest challenge was narrowing down the stories and cities. I half-joke that I want to make a State of Pride 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and so on. I really would love to make a State of Pride series, or more continuations of this documentary, because there are so many powerful stories from the LGBTQ community and so many fascinating Pride celebrations.
For this film, figuring out the massive jigsaw, Tetris puzzle of scheduling, production and balancing diversity of both geographic regions and stories was a challenge. I wish we could’ve made a 100-hour anthology series and continued traveling to more and more Prides because there are so many good stories out there.
D: I noticed you seemed quite curious to hear from the gay Syrian man at San Francisco Pride, who has a complicated relationship with the queer community (as do many trans folk and POC) as well as with his own sexuality. Can you discuss some of the biggest, perhaps pre-conceived-notion-upending surprises you might have encountered along the way?
RB: I had done a lot of research, interviewed a wide range of LGBTQ people, and attended Prides around the world prior to working on this film, so I was aware of the complex relationship that many people within the LGBTQ community have to Pride. That’s part of the reason I was so inspired to explore these threads in the documentary.
The biggest surprise I encountered along the way was Tuscaloosa Pride in Alabama. I knew the Pride was in its third year, and the first year drew around 50 people. I was very curious about what the vibe would be like at a Pride with maybe 50 or 100 people. Would it still be powerful and moving for the participants, or would it feel like a gathering of people on a lawn with a few picnic tables, flags and a karaoke sound machine? As you see in the film, I had a big revelation about Pride in Alabama. I will always cherish my memories there and the connections we formed.
D: Both you and the filmmakers are cisgender white males from outside the communities being documented, so I’m wondering how this affected how you approached such a diverse range of characters. Were there some folks whose trust you worried you might not have gained?
RB: It was of paramount importance to Rob, Jeff and me that we make every effort to reflect as many different voices, perspectives, identities, backgrounds and lived experiences in the film as possible. We also wanted to create an experience for anyone in the documentary—on or off camera—to feel like they were part of a supportive and inclusive community.
Our lead creative producer, Mari Rivera, is a queer woman of color who assembled an incredible all-female producer team. In every city that we filmed, we had a minimum 50 percent female crew. Mari was very intentional about hiring LGBTQ people, people of color, and giving crew jobs to people who had historically been less represented and given fewer opportunities on film sets (such as nonbinary and trans people). It is a testament to our brilliant team that we were able to get such intimate access and to build trust and connection with pretty much everyone we wanted to film with.
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.