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Playback: Mariposa Film Group's 'Word is Out'

By Arthur Dong

From Mariposa Film Group's <em>Word is Out</em>

Nineteen seventy-seven was a watershed year: Anita Bryant launched the nation's first widespread offensive against gays rights legislation; Harvey Milk was elected into office; San Francisco's gay film festival was inaugurated; and I was gay-bashed. It was also the year Word is Out hit the screens. From its first frame, audiences were challenged: a pensive Latina sits on the edge of her bed looking out into the distance in prolonged silence, a silence finally broken by an off-screen voice asking tentatively, "Were you always gay?" She turns to the camera and without abandonment tells us, "Always." From that point on, this ground-breaking documentary not only gave us affirming stories of gay and lesbian people, but also pushed the envelope of the documentary form by dispelling the then-popular theory of fly-on-the-wall style cinéma vérité.

Word is Out was produced by the Mariposa Film Group, a collective of filmmakers including Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown, Robert Epstein and Lucy Massie Phenix. Verbal exchanges between the off-screen filmmakers and subjects were left intact as integral elements of the film's exploratory nature. Throughout the film's 130 minutes, we in the audience were seduced into the filmmaking process—Word is Out was a startling cinematic experience.

The film was meaningful in both my personal and filmmaking development. In the politically and culturally heady days of 1977, it helped shape my own sense of identity. It was the first film I had seen that portrayed gay and lesbian people honestly. It embodied the idea of multiculturalism long before that term was put into popular use. To this day, it is an extraordinary acknowledgment of diversity in the gay community and pointed out that I, too, had a stake in the struggle for equality. In terms of my film work, I was excited by how Word is Out used personal storytelling as a call for progressive social change.

It's been almost a quarter of a century since Word is Out premiered. As I reflect on its place in documentary history, I think back on why I am drawn to nonfiction film: documentaries have the capacity to enlighten, empower, challenge and entertain by examining truths.


Arthur Dong’s award-winning works include Licensed to Kill, Coming Out Under Fire and The Question of Equality: Out Rage ’69. His current work, The Public Families Project, will profile the relationship between influential public figures opposed to gay rights and their gay and lesbian children.