With God on Our Side: 'For the Bible Tells Me So' Challenges the Church on Gay Issues
By Tom White
Christian faith and the gay community are seemingly incompatible concepts, with the religious right fomenting bigotry and spreading fear, using the Bible and the pulpit as weapons to marginalize gays and lesbians. In For the Bible Tells Me So, filmmaker Daniel Karslake examines this faith-based issue both though the personal stories of five Christian families, all of whom struggled to reconcile their faith with loving their gay children, and the observations of well-respected religious figures about how biblical scripture is interpreted and misinterpreted. For the Bible Tells Me So opened at Sundance in 2007, earned awards at Full Frame, Seattle International Film Festival and OutFest, and although it completed its theatrical run through First Run Features last fall, the film continues to screen at churches and universities across the country, with bookings currently extended to June. The DVD was released February 19, also through First Run.
IDA caught up with Karslake via e-mail as he was between screenings.
IDA: For the Bible Tells Me So was your first feature-length documentary, although you had produced a number of news magazine pieces for PBS' In the Life. Talk about the challenges in making the transition from journalist to documentary filmmaker--what skills were most transferable and what was most difficult to adapt to?
Daniel Karslake: My training at PBS prepared me very well to make a feature documentary. Because I had worked primarily on long-form stories for In the Life, I had grown accustomed to having time to develop a story on screen--and since I was focusing on five different families in For the Bible Tells Me So, I decided to approach each family story as its own long-form segment, so that made it all feel much more doable.
What became challenging was the sheer amount of material I had to shoot for a full-length doc; I was absolutely not used to having to keep track of that much footage. I was accustomed to shooting maybe 10 hours of material for a 15-minute piece on In the Life, but for For the BibleTells Me So, I ended up with almost 250 hours of footage; that was very challenging to manage. Thankfully, I worked with one of the best editors in the business, Nancy Kennedy, and she has something of a photographic memory, so between us we were able to manage it all pretty well.
The other very challenging aspect of the project was that I was also the primary fundraiser for the film, so I was both making the movie and raising the majority of money, and that was very difficult.
IDA: On your website, you cite Bowling for Columbine as one documentary that really crystallized your goals and objectives for the film. Talk about that a little more--what was it about this film that resonated for you?
DK: Seeing Bowling for Columbine made me realize that I not only could make a doc about religion and homosexuality in America, but that I should. There was something about how well Michael Moore used humor and music and emotional stories to open the audience up to his take on a very divisive issue in our culture--gun violence in America--that really spoke to me.
I had been producing pieces for PBS about gays and God for some time, so I knew how explosive and separating those two issues together could be. But I saw in Moore's film a way around that. I didn't want to make a film that would separate people further on the issue, but rather I wanted to make a movie that elevated the conversation to a higher level. Watching Bowling for Columbine helped me see how I could do that. Though his movies have gotten increasingly polemical and separating, Bowling for Columbine was a brilliant example of a film that had a specific point of view but could be seen by people on all sides of the issue.
IDA: How did you find your subjects? How difficult was it to get them to agree to tell their stories on camera?
DK: I decided to make the film in May of 2003 and almost immediately in June, Gene Robinson was elected by the people of New Hampshire to be their bishop. Because he was the first openly gay man elected to be a bishop in the history of Christianity, he was on the front page of every newspaper in the world, and it was clear to me that if I was making a film about homosexuality and religion, then I should at least try to get this guy involved.
After a couple of months of serious research into his life and writings, I was able to get through his various levels of security into his office in Concord to speak with him about the project. After an absolutely miraculous meeting with him, during which I was able to explain my vision for the film, he agreed to give me access to his parents, his girls and his life so that I could tell his story in the film. Not only had he seen a number of the stories I had produced for In the Life, but I think he was also impressed by how much I knew about his life and work, and I know he was very moved by my passion for the project.
With a "yes" from Robinson, I then pursued the Gephardts. It was that same summer (2003) that Chrissy came out to her parents and started working for her dad (former US Senator Richard Gephardt) on his Presidential campaign. I had been particularly bothered by the shameful way our Vice President had been treating the fact that he had a lesbian daughter, so I thought that Gephardt's seemingly immediate acceptance of his daughter seemed remarkable. Friends of mine were strong supporters of Gephardt's campaign, so I asked them to set up a meeting between me and Chrissy, which they did. Chrissy and I had a really great first meeting and once again, the project seemed to resonate with her, so she introduced me to her parents and they climbed on board almost immediately.
Once I had the Robinsons and the Gephardts in place, I very much wanted to find three other families who weren't at all in the public eye. In my research, I had read about Mary Lou Wallner's book The Slow Miracle of Transformation, so I ordered a copy and read it. Her tragic story of how her Biblically-based rejection of her daughter Anna had lead to Anna's suicide was heartbreaking and yet her transformation after the suicide was a huge inspiration, so I called Mary Lou and went to see her. Once again, after a long talk about my vision for the film, Mary Lou signed on.
I met Phil and Randi Reitan, Evangelical Lutherans from Minnesota, at the Soulforce action at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs. I knew their son Jake, who was an incredible activist in his own right, but when I met Phil and Randi and found out how incredibly far they had traveled in their journey toward acceptance of their gay son, I knew I wanted to include them in the film.
By far, the biggest challenge was finding a family of color for the film. I had huge fights with my production team about the fact that I wasn't going to make a film about five white families in America. I felt very strongly that because homosexuality is a huge issue in communities of color as well, I wanted that represented in the movie. I met and got pretty close to almost 40 families of color before Brenda and David Poteat, both charismatic preachers from North Carolina, agreed to be in the film--much to the surprise of their lesbian daughter, Tonia. I spent a great deal of time with the Poteats before they agreed to do the film, but I think ultimately they came to trust that I wanted to tell their story as honestly as I possibly could. It was a big risk for the Poteats to do the movie, and I will be forever grateful to them for taking that risk.
IDA: Unlike the subjects in Arthur Dong's Family Fundamentals, where many of the families had not reached a rapprochement and the differences were still irreconcilable, your families had come to some sort of reconciliation. In your "casting" process, did you come across parent-child relationships that had not reconciled?
DK: Of course I came across many examples where families remain estranged because of the issue of homosexuality. Sadly, I think that kind of estrangement is probably still the rule rather than an exception. And Arthur's film illuminated that experience beautifully...but I wanted to tell another story. We've been told repeatedly in the media that people of faith have a choice--they can either remain true to their faith and reject homosexuality within their family or they can reject their faith and embrace their gay child. I feel very strongly that the two are not mutually exclusive. So I set out to tell the stories of five conservative Christian families who were able to remain true to their own faith and embrace their LGBT child.
IDA: Talk about your fundraising efforts for this film: How long did it take? Was it primarily individual support? Did you secure foundation grants?
DK: As I mentioned earlier, raising the money to make For The Bible Tells Me So was probably the most challenging part of making the film. As a first-time filmmaker, I felt it would be easier to raise the money charitably rather than through investment, since I didn't have a track record to which to point. So the project aligned first with a nonprofit called New Light Media and then with IDA as fiscal sponsors of the film.
It took about three and a half years to make the film, and that's about how long it took to raise the money. Though I did get a couple of grants from foundations, the money came primarily in the form of major gifts from individuals. Because of the nature of the subject matter, we were supported almost solely by LGBT folks. But the challenge there was that before the 2004 election, most of those prospects were pouring funds into the Kerry campaign. Once Kerry lost, many of those donors were so disenchanted by the entire process that many of them weren't making donations to other projects, so it was very, very challenging, to say the least!
IDA: In looking at the screening schedule for the film, you've been maintaining a grassroots campaign to churches and some colleges since November, and you currently have bookings scheduled to June. This is very reminiscent of Sandi DuBowski's outreach tour of Trembling before God. Is First Run helping you in booking and touring to these venues? How have these screenings been received? I assume that you and your production team are divvying up the responsibilities of which screenings to attend. Are any of the subjects of the film attending these screenings as well?
DK: When we first signed with First Run last summer, there was some concern on their part that they weren't going to be able to book even the 15 theatrical screenings necessary to be eligible for an Academy Award. Happily, last week we celebrated our 250th booking, so there is much more interest in the film than anybody ever dreamed-and our church and university bookings are really exploding!
What's also very exciting about that is that the passion and emotion that audiences generally express after seeing the film only seems to be growing. Audiences, particularly church audiences, seem incredibly moved and motivated by the film. Whether they are "the choir" who have been on the side of LGBT people but just staying quiet, or they are the "movable middle" who have never before been given permission to challenge the church on this issue, people are being moved to action and that's very exciting.
When possible, members of the production team are trying to cover as many screenings as we can. I appear at four or five a week, often with family members from the film. I was recently in Savannah for a sold-out screening with David Poteat and Mary Lou Wallner, and next month I'll be doing four appearances in Concord with Bishop Gene Robinson. All of the family members are so proud of the film that they are now regularly appearing with the movie in their area.
IDA: Have you developed educational materials in conjunction with the film?
DK: Two organizations are preparing educational materials for the film. The Human Rights Campaign is developing a discussion guide to be distributed to churches that show the film to aid in post-screening discussions.
Northhaven United Methodist Church in Dallas is preparing a non-denominational six-week Bible study based on the film, in addition to a lecture guide. All three materials should be available by summer.
IDA: Having experienced the process of making a documentary--and exploring the issue of faith and spirituality in the gay community through both Christian families and respected religious figures--and taking it on the road, how has your personal faith changed?
DK: Making For The Bible Tells Me So has proven to be quite an incredible spiritual journey for me. When I began making the film, I had a very insular, negative view of conservative Christians. I believed exactly what many other gay people believe--that conservative Christians are hating, bigoted people.
But what I learned as I got very close to the five families in my film was that these people didn't hate anybody. Rather, it was out of a place of love and concern that they urged their children to "leave the homosexual lifestyle." These folks had very simply been misled by their own leaders--their ministers, their priests. But when push came to shove and they needed to open up the Bible to read it for themselves, then transformation occurred and they realized that what it all comes down to is love.
Thomas White is editor of Documentary and content editor of www.documentary.org.