Doc Star of the Month: Walter Burrell, 'The Gospel of Eureka'
Following on the heels of last month’s “Doc Star of the Month,” Ashley York, the lead character and co-director of hillbilly, Documentary is pleased to present for February yet another face of flyover-country diversity. Walter Burrell is the proud owner of a drinking hole in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, that he lovingly refers to as the “hillbilly Studio 54” in Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s The Gospel of Eureka. (And which, though it hosts weekly drag shows, Burrell is quick to point out is not a “gay bar,” since it welcomes everyone regardless of sexuality; he’s staunchly opposed to “gay segregation.”)
Documentary spoke with Burrell about appearing in Palmieri and Mosher’s in-depth exploration of his town, a place where deeply devout Christians (including Burrell himself) and those in the LGBTQ community live together in relative harmony, focusing on their shared common values rather than anything that might drive them apart.
Kino Lorber releases The Gospel of Eureka on February 8.
What made you and Lee trust Michael and Donal enough to let them into your lives in the first place?
Walter Burrell: Well, Lee and I—we’re pretty trusting anyway. We just don't think someone's out to get us. (laughs) We just kind of think of everybody as the same. It doesn’t really matter where you're from. We just like people.
Weren't there a lot of journalists in town at the same time, covering the referendum on a nondiscrimination ordinance?
Yes. And we had just done a documentary with [Canal +] in France. Then Michael and Donal wanted to do this one. We got to talking. We had finished the documentary with France during the vote, and Michael and Donal had come down to the bar, and we just were shooting the shit with them. They found out that Lee and I were Christian and gay and owned a bar. But we were just talking and talking about when the AIDS epidemic was going on, and I guess it intrigued 'em. They wanted to do the documentary, and Lee said let's do it, and we did.
Did they meet you at your bar?
Right. They had come down because they had finished their little 15-minute documentary with the law for gay rights [Peace in the Valley, for Field of Vision]. And we had just finished the documentary with the one in France. And so we were comparing notes, basically on what had been going on because we weren’t originally in their documentary. We got to talking about the AIDS epidemic during the '80s and how we had lost every male gay friend we had. And we talked about how Lee had opened two AIDS ministries in the Baptist Church, and that I was a Sunday school teacher.
And they couldn’t understand that. And then we were also the first gay couple that was married by a Baptist preacher, so this was all intriguing them to do more. They might tell you something different, but that was my take on it.
I know they were in town because of the vote, which got a lot of national press.
Yes, we were like a bulls-eye. If we passed that nondiscrimination law, they could no longer say that we had never had rights because even if we had it for one minute, we had had rights. And so that was a big deal. And big money was pouring in from other states to keep it from happening.
Do you know people that voted against the ordinance, and for discrimination?
Yes, and I was shocked by some. See, Lee and I never believed in an “us and them” theory. We've always believed there's just “us.” And, you know, it's okay to disagree, but when you start putting your beliefs onto someone else forcefully, we kind of rile up.
How do you deal with these people now? Do you still interact with them?
Oh, yeah. Well, my whole family is fundamentalist Christian and pro-Trump. Are you gonna not love them just because you disagree on one thing? It took me years to accept I was gay, and yet I expected my parents to accept it the minute I told 'em, you know? And looking back, that wasn't fair of me.
Do you feel like people have come around to your side or do you just not talk about certain things?
No, a lot of people come around. That’s why Lee and I have always stayed in the hotbed of it, because we've spent our lives trying to teach people. I remember when Lee and I first became men. It was during the heat of the AIDS epidemic. A preacher came on TV and said the right people were dying. And I looked at Lee and said, "No one's gonna help us." And he said, "Well, we're gonna have to do it ourselves." And I said, "Well, who are we to do it?" And he said, "Well, we're gonna have to do it 'cause everybody else is dying." And so that's when he started the two AIDS ministries, and I started teaching Sunday school to help people deal with the discrimination they were going through. And we did all that on a bad bit of turf.
Christianity must've brought you together with your straight neighbors, though, right? Do you think having a shared religion helps?
Lee and I never felt discriminated against. We just tried to help other people who did feel that. We just were like, well, you can believe how you believe, but this wasn't any skin off our back whether they accepted us or not. This is how we were, and we've never been bad to anyone.
Was the bar not controversial when you opened it?
The bar is not a gay bar. Matter of fact, we think that's segregation. Everybody comes to our bar. And once a month we have a drag show—maybe brings in 40 percent gay. But there's not a gay bar in town because everybody there believes everybody should be together.
So how connected have you felt historically to the LGBTQ community at large? Do you feel marginalized by it and more connected to your community in Eureka Springs? I mean, queer culture has really always been defined by coastal elites. Flyover country tends to be dismissed in general.
Well, I know they've attempted to marginalize us, but they never succeeded because we were who we were. We just went on doing our thing, trying to have a community; we saw more death in our 30s than most people have in their 80s. And here's the thing: Lee and I were not just a couple. We were partners.
And when we had to be, we were a force. Most people think of this going on on the coasts, but it's happening in Middle America all the time too. It's just hidden better. And Lee and I kind of stood out because we didn’t try to hide it.
People tend to think of gay culture as monolithic. I mean, I spent a good part of my youth doing lip-synch shows with the drag queens in New York City, and not once did I hear a country song performed. And I only realized that because of the doc, when I saw what the drag queens at your bar were doing. I really feel like your community's been shoved off to the side in a lot of ways.
It's easy to label both sides, but the truth is, everybody's an individual. Most marginalizing around the world, it’s based on classism. I'm a little better than you because—and fill-in-the-blank, you know? Most of the time, we think of the blank being filled up with “white male,” but it can also be filled up with other things. And “gay” has often filled that blank.
Tragically, Lee passed away during the shoot. How did that affect things? Did you take a break from production? I can’t imagine wanting to have a camera around during such an emotionally devastating time.
Well, we found out Lee had cancer. They were wanting him to do some stuff, and I had to tell them he wasn't up to it health-wise. And they weren’t quite understanding because it came on so quickly. And Lee said, "Well, let them come do another interview, but I don't want to tell 'em about the cancer." So I said, "Well, Lee, I've already told 'em about the cancer.” But he said, "Well, I don't want to talk about it on film." And I said okay.
And so they came down, and we were sitting outside on the patio and having some cocktails and stuff. And Lee looked at 'em and said, "Okay, let's go film the cancer." And my jaw hits the ground because I couldn’t believe he wanted to do that. He was really not feeling well that day, and they really didn’t show any of the filming from that because he just really wasn't feeling good. All they really used was him saying he had cancer.
Anyway, he only lived two months after we found out about the cancer. And they called me and asked if they could film the funeral. And I said, "Normally, I would say no, but since he opened the can of worms with the cancer, I'm willing to let you do it. But I don't want it to be intrusive."
People were asking me to put gay flags on the coffin, asking me to put gay this and that. And I said, There's a time and place for everything, and this is about remembering Lee, not about being gay. Gay is not our religion. And as we got older, we were really only gay about 30 minutes a week anyway, so... (laughs). Anyway, that's how that went down. And I'm glad I let 'em do it. At the time I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing, but it memorialized Lee, and I appreciated that.
How do you feel about the film now?
I've seen it, like, 20-something times. I've gone and spoke at all these film festivals, and done interviews and podcasts and all that kind of stuff, and it's actually been a healing thing.
So it actually helped you through the grieving process, having this film as a record?
Yes. And right after Lee died, my father came down with cancer, and he died five months after Lee. It was a year of cancer and dying for my family, and the film has been healing.
And have things changed for you since the film?
Well, I had to get right back to normal life while people were dying because I was running a business and doing what two people used to do. And people were depending on me, so I couldn’t sit around and just grieve. Life is full of ebbs and flows, and you've got to go with it or get left behind on the sand. And so, anyway, for a year and a half, I have been working myself to death trying to do all of this. Within just the last month, I've sold the bar and sold my house to move back to where my family is.
Where is your family?
They live in southeast Arkansas, on the Arkansas Delta, Mississippi Delta. And we're all getting older, and I was—after Lee died I was in Eureka by myself, and I just finally decided to come back home.
Is there anything else you wanted to say before we wrap up?
Well, I think Michael and Donal did an excellent job of editing and putting it together. Lee and I only knew about the part that we did. We didn’t know anything anyone else did until I saw the film. But I think it’s a great legacy for Eureka Springs and for Lee. And I appreciate all they did.
They still call and check on me. They were really good during Lee's dying, and we became friends during the process. And at several of the festivals, many people have come up to me who have gone through the same thing, and told me how much watching it helped them.
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.