June 30, 2021

Queering Documentary: An LGBTQ+ Conversation

A collage of members of the LGBTQ+ roundtable with a rainbow gradient on the bottom. From left to right: PJ Raval, Kim Yutani, Yvonne Welbon, Jess Search, Yance Ford, Lindsey Dryden, Set Hernandez Rongkilyo, Viridiana Lieberman, and Sam Feder. Courtesy of those listed

My queerness is the foundation of my creativity, political orientation and values. Being queer means being free and centering liberation in all actions and interactions. As a producer, every film I make is queer—even if it doesn’t center queer lives on screen. In this way, queer producing means centering liberation in all aspects of filmmaking: casting participants, crew and funder contracts, hiring, financial models, production, editing, publicity, sales and impact. When I talk about Multitude Films as a queer-led team, it doesn’t only mean that our three principal producers (myself, Anya Rous and Sweta Vohra) are queer-identified; it means that our whole team is committed to letting liberation lead our work. As we marked the fifth anniversary of Multitude this Pride month, I felt a pull toward community with my queer colleagues across the industry. This roundtable is an outgrowth of that desire. 

Yance Ford, Set Hernandez Rongkilyo, Jess Search, Lindsey Dryden, Yvonne Welbon, PJ Raval, Sam Feder, Kim Yutani and Viridiana Lieberman represent a cross-section of roles and industry experience, and are all people whose work, perspectives, leadership, and friendship have sharpened my producing practice. It was such a gift to host this conversation with them. 

Yance Ford made history as the first openly transgender director to be nominated for an Oscar for his film Strong Island. Set Hernandez Rongkilyo is the co-founder of the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective, directed the short film Cover/Age, and served as an impact producer for Call Her Ganda. Jess Search is the Chief Executive of Doc Society. Lindsey Dryden is an Emmy Award-winning producer known for Unrest and Trans in America, as well as a founding member of FWD-Doc. Yvonne Welbon is an award-winning filmmaker, founder and CEO of Sisters in Cinema, and Senior Creative Consultant at Chicken & Egg Pictures. PJ Raval is a Guggenheim fellow who serves on the A-Doc Leadership Team and whose work includes Call Her Ganda and Before You Know It. Sam Feder is a Peabody-nominated director known for the Netflix Original Disclosure. Kim Yutani is the Director of Programming of the Sundance Film Festival and former Artistic Director at Outfest. Viridiana Lieberman is an editor known for the Oscar-shortlisted Call Center Blues, Sundance Audience Award-winner The Sentence, and the Netflix Original Series We Are: the Brooklyn Saints as well as the author of Sports Heroines on Film: A Critical Study of Cinematic Women Athletes, Coaches and Owners

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 


JESSICA DEVANEY: When it comes to identity, some filmmakers—by which I mean anyone involved in the making of films—say, "I don’t want to be asked, ‘As a Black and/or trans and/or queer and/or disabled filmmaker’ how it feels to…. I want to be asked about my craft." While other filmmakers say: my queerness, my Blackness, my disability, etc. informs and strengthens my craft—and I want to speak to that. How does that question land for you? 

PJ RAVAL: I have no problem identifying myself as a queer filmmaker. I like the word queer. For me, it's not just a description of gender or sexual identity. It's also political. The word queer has a certain political history, so by using it I'm also framing the way someone receives who I am. In a similar way, more recently I've stopped referring to myself as an Asian-American filmmaker, or Filipino-American filmmaker, and started using Filipinx. This term, too, situates my political thinking.

SET HERNANDEZ RONGKILYO: When I talk about myself as an undocumented filmmaker and a person who is from the Philippines and an immigrant, I like naming or identifying myself in that way because when I was younger, I never saw undocumented people in filmmaking. I like identifying myself, because maybe there's someone who is like me when I was younger, and is looking for another undocumented person that they can relate to. Claiming this part of my experience, on top of being a filmmaker, is an opportunity to say to that person, "Hey, you can also do things like this."

LINDSEY DRYDEN: A lot of the work that I'm doing with colleagues and community is about expressing queer perspectives and making space for perspectives that I want to see, and that are lacking from the space. So there is a very direct queerness attached to my work. 

I think there's that question related to disability as well. I've been working with Netflix and Doc Society on toolkits on effectively engaging with disabled filmmakers. We recently hosted an event about that, but something we didn’t get the chance to say was that we're not only there to do that work. Yes, there's a group of disabled filmmakers, all of whom are being funded and supported right now to make films that are about disability, about our personal perspectives. But that isn't all that we want to do and all we want to reflect on.

JESS SEARCH: I'm very happy introducing myself as queer, particularly when it's really tantamount as to what's being discussed. But maybe people want to feel like they're established and respected before they start to brandish their identities. And I have noticed that in my own team. We asked people who join Doc Society to fill out a form where we ask if they'd like to bring certain identities to work, and then if they would, how they would identify. And it's definitely noticeable that younger people—people with less formal power in the organization—generally are a bit more cautious about putting their identities forward. I get it.

KIM YUTANI: This is an interesting question for me because I think that so much of my identity is inextricable from my work. My identity informs the work I do. And at the same time, I feel the responsibility of representing so many voices and so many visions in the work that I do. So I feel like I'm constantly shedding my identity and seeing outside of who I am and what makes me "me." It’s an interesting balance, because I think there are certain expectations of me, being who I am in the position that I am in, yet I constantly have to step outside of my experience to do the work that I do.

SAM FEDER: A few things came to mind with that question. Flipping the order of these terms makes such a big difference. Are you a trans filmmaker, or are you a filmmaker who's trans? Are you a queer filmmaker, or are you a filmmaker who's queer? The implications of that are really heavy and big.

I believe that trans films or queer films actually exist and are possible, but then I'm also not sure I do. Within the system in which we work, we make things that happen to have trans characters or queer characters within a very hetero, cisnormative, hegemonic industry. It makes me think of Richard Dyer’s piece, "Gays in Film" that he wrote in the ’70s about how there is no such thing as gay film. 

Thinking specifically about when I'm approached and asked, "What does it mean to be a trans filmmaker?", it starkly makes me think about the difference between how I might identify as a person with those labels, and how that affects my work versus how someone is approaching me with those labels. When someone's approaching me with that question, it feels so restrictive. It feels so limited as to what their expectation is and what's behind it. It's just the antithesis to the expansiveness that those labels mean to me. 

YANCE FORD: I think at the heart of the question lies our collective failure of imagination to envision that someone's whole self is indivisible. And in that inability to pull one part of yourself off from all the other parts lies the strength as a director, as an editor, as a producer—wherever you've made your niche in the field. 

I think that the question itself is an indication that the person asking it perhaps hasn't thought holistically enough about what makes someone who they are. Because then if they did, they would simply ask the question, "What was it like for you to make fill-in-the-blank?", and then I would be able to bring into that answer all the parts of who I am that were relevant to the creative process, whether it's foregrounded, or like in Strong Island, whether it's backgrounded.

I come out in the film pretty late on, so much so that people are like, "Strong Island’s not a queer film." And I’m like, "That's an interesting perspective." I never argue it, but I just think that there's a much more expansive understanding of identity, and how our multiple selves are connected. I wish that was more a part of how we talk about the craft of filmmaking.

VIRIDIANA LIEBERMAN: It's funny, this question always short circuits my brain. And it's almost because everything everybody said happened simultaneously for me. When I was growing up, I was such a fan of Hollywood, reading everything about movies. I was that kid with the Spielberg poster. I was so indoctrinated in an old Hollywood, that even though I very much embraced having a shaved head and wearing cargo shorts with my tank top, I still didn't want to be a "gay filmmaker.” I was just like, I make movies. Now when I look back at it, it feels like it was, obviously, some form of shame, even though I was proudly out. 

A part of the group that's saying, "I'm just a filmmaker, it is who I am, this is how I tell stories, and these are my eyes." I totally am on board with that. And then the other side of me, as I've gotten older, is starting to be like, "Well, there are certain stories that I was dying to see as a young person and the only reason I am making them now is because I am a lesbian."

Yvonne Welbon on set. Courtesy of Yvonne Welbon.

YVONNE WELBON: Honestly, I hate that question because we only know how to be who we are. Like, what is it like to be a Black woman? Well, that’s all I've ever been, so I don't know what else it could be like. 

I feel like the queer space accepts all my identities. But sometimes in an African-American space, being queer isn't accepted. And I also will say that sometimes because of my identities, there are opportunities—especially in the LGBTQ+ world. It's just this wonderful embracing space. But oftentimes, there's also limitations of what people think you can do. If you're stepping into a space, in my case as a Black woman, assumptions are made and sometimes those assumptions reduce opportunities because certain stereotypes still exist. 

I remember when I really wanted to make a series about Black women scientists. I found the woman who made the toys for McDonald's Happy Meals. I just thought it was interesting and encouraging, but there really wasn't a place for it. A film about Black women needed to be about pathology, there needed to be some problem. It couldn't be positive. 

JD: Some of you already said how holding multiple identities and experiencing marginalization across multiple identities shape access, opportunities, and your ability to make the work you want to make. Thinking about intersectionality and queer futurism, how can we be building better alliances across our different identities? And what organizing or creative possibilities can be forged through allyship—particularly given that when we all work together, the minorities become the majority. Lindsey, I’m thinking of your work with FWD-Doc; Set, your work with the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective; Yvonne, your deep research in Sisters in the Life and ongoing work with Sisters in Cinema; and PJ, your work with A-Doc.

YVONNE WELBON: I'm laughing because that is the biggest question. The first thing that came to mind was my experience with The New Black, which is Black, queer, and looks at the intersection of social justice movements, faith and LGBTQ+ lives. It's this super-intersectional film. It played on the festival circuit for years, and we won a lot of awards right away—Frameline, AFI Docs, Human Rights Watch, Philly Q Fest, Urbanworld. It did really well. 

But the thing was, in the first round, a lot of the gay festivals—that white men were programming—did not program the film. It was programmed in year two. It wasn't totally shunned in Black film festivals, but it was also a slow uptake on that. So that was the other thing—too queer for Black, too Black for queer. 

In the end, it's such a good film that ended up playing everywhere, but it took a moment for all of that to happen. And so maybe, in this utopian world that you're imagining, it doesn't take a moment. People see the value immediately.

PJ RAVAL: It’s interesting thinking about your previous question about even being called a queer filmmaker. I had to start calling myself a Filipino American or Filipinx filmmaker to remind people that I wasn't a white filmmaker. And I started recognizing, when I started identifying using these terms, even the panels I got asked to be on or the questions I got asked suddenly started veering towards not only gender and sexual identity, but also towards questions of race, questions of immigration. 

Growing up, I have been encouraged, through the systems we all live in, to separate everything. I'm sure everyone in this conversation has felt the same way—where in one room we're queer, in one room we're Asian American, and in another room I'm a filmmaker from Austin. And at some point, I just started thinking that there needs to be a wholeness for me, and I needed to approach everything as the same person. 

Going back to my previous answer, the reason I had always attached myself to the word queer is because there is a very political history to that word. And a lot of my history and identity have been rooted in opposition, in political resistance. 

If we're talking about the film industry, I cannot tell you how many times I've been in LGBTQ+ spaces where I'm told I'm not making the right kind of LGBTQ+ films. Early on, when I was a grad student and I was making a lot of short narrative films, I remember having these conversations where I was encouraged to make gay boy comedies. I was told, "You’ll get more attention making those than these other narratives that you’re making."

And we have to be honest, just saying LGBTQ+ doesn't necessarily mean we understand intersectional thinking. You can still be very heteronormative, you can be homo-nationalist, you can still be a capitalist. 

LINDSEY DRYDEN: Yvonne, you were talking about queer futurism meaning just being valued right off the bat, as opposed to having to prove that you're valuable. It makes me feel quite emotional, because I think a lot of the work that we're doing around disability in the documentary space is literally trying to convince people that our perspectives are worth something, and that our bodies are worth something. 

I think there's so much overlap between what you were talking about, PJ—queer politics and what queer means—and what we're trying to build as a future for disabled people and disabled bodies. People with disabilities in a creative space benefits everybody. It's about sustainability, about working practices that enable us to be our whole human selves and not just the convenient or polished parts. 

SAM FEDER: OK, so that makes me think of a lot of things. One of the things I love most about being trans is that we live at the intersection of every possible identity a human can have—age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, religion, ability, and on and on and on. Yet, we're reduced to a very small space and often do not organize along those lines. And yes, the resistance against trans inclusion within the queer community is no secret. It's definitely changed a lot over the past 20 years.

When it comes to trans storytelling, in particular, there's still a desire for sadness, there's still a desire for the access point to be a place that maintains the power dynamic of othering trans people, of marginalizing trans people, even within the queer space.

So, it’s the transition narrative. It's, "What is your body? What do you have? What don't you have? How can I understand you in a way that will maintain my dominance over you?" That ideology is often what we're up against. 

But I also think that's not limited to trans people. And, Yvonne, what you said about The New Black—it makes me nauseous, quite honestly, and it makes me want to pull my film from every queer festival ever. It's just inexcusable. We have to constantly question the power dynamics that are informing the decision-makers. And none of this is going to change until the people in decision-making positions change.

"Are you a queer filmmaker, or are you a filmmaker who's queer?" - Sam Feder

JD: Do you think queering documentary offers different formalistic approaches to storytelling, or equips us to understand nonfiction and fiction as more of a spectrum than a binary? 

PJ RAVAL: Part of why I like the word queer also is just because of the connotations. It's a little messy. The word queer and the idea of queerness is about possibility. I think about the future, I think about discovery, I think about inquiry, I think about all of these things—and I think about breaking form. 

A lot of that also has to do with the history of what queer filmmaking has been considered to be, in terms of its groundbreaking and innovation. So, the idea of queering a documentary, or queering any genre, is exciting to me. What does queer horror look like? What does queer police drama look like? 

JD: So, is a film queer because it's topically queer or stylistically queer? 

KIM YUTANI: I think there's something really exciting and transcendent when you see a film doing something that you have never seen before, or is approaching a subject in a way that you've not seen before. That is, to me, the sign of innovation at work. When something is formally taking risks and daring to do something different, that always gets my attention. 

Now that the festival director at Sundance is the same person who created the Art of Nonfiction program at Sundance, it is expected that we are going to support films that audiences are perhaps not ready for or aren’t accustomed to seeing, but that we as people who watch hundreds and hundreds of films every year are just dying to see. 

VIRIDIANA LIEBERMAN: As an editor, every time I get the opportunity to cut something, I’m not trying to be inventive just for the sake of it, but truly paying attention to the footage and listening to what its voice is, and obviously the director's vision. But I do try to do something different. And if that's queering, I think that's awesome.

And then there's another side to it, which is taking the Hollywood patterns and the formulaic stories and plugging different voices into those. I think queering can absolutely be experimental and a really exciting new film language. But it can also be a reclaiming of an old language in the ways that we approach the media. 

LINDSEY DRYDEN: I really loved what you said, PJ, about not prescribing queerness to our films but talking about the queerness that we bring as filmmakers. However much my team might be an LGBTQ+ one, we don't have the right to ascribe how that film might land and what it might mean to other people. We bring a particular perspective and that's the value of the team. 

In terms of queer futures and imagining what possibilities might be for our futures, it feels really important to immerse ourselves in history of LGBTQ+ film, music and art, as we ask ourselves, What is the right form for this story? 

YVONNE WELBON: For me, queer film is personal. And it is really about an act of visibility, even if it's not a queer story. So, Jess, I'm thinking about you producing Always in Season. That story needed to be told. Lindsey, I'm thinking about you producing Unrest. We are embodying our choices, our need to be seen, and we understand that need for others also. On some level, you're picking characters who are walking the walk that you’ve had to walk. 

YANCE FORD: Queering my work is an aesthetic approach, but it is also about the kinds of places where I try to put myself creatively. I just got back from directing two episodes of the series Work in Progress. I'm so glad that I had that opportunity, and there are so many ways in which the experience of working with Lilly Wachowski and Abby McEnany will influence my nonfiction filmmaking. 

But there are also ways in which the episode of Pride that I did recently will continue to influence my work. I had a really great conversation with Marquise Vilsón Balenciaga about rejecting cis-assumed privilege. And that, for me, has been really front of mind. Transmasculine people of color, especially, are flirting with being made invisible by people just wanting to consider them cis. So my work going forward is all about making sure that my identity as trans is a central part of how I look at everything I do. 

Queering my work is now front of mind all the time because otherwise, I disappear. To quote someone from the episode of Pride that I directed, "It's in that disappearance, that the forces that would have us go back into our closets win." 

"As I come to understand more about what my queerness means for me, I just feel like I'm not hiding anything." - Set Hernandez Rongkilyo

JD: Ok, lightning round: What’s your favorite thing about being LGBTQ+? 

YVONNE WELBON: The parodies, of course. 

PJ RAVAL: Strangely, I feel like I can do whatever I want.

VIRIDIANA LIEBERMAN: That's totally true. The first thing I thought is, I don't owe anybody anything. I always say it's like being unplugged from the matrix. It's like I can see it everywhere, I can be anything, and I don't have to contain it.

YANCE FORD: My favorite thing about being queer and trans is that I have always been essentially who I am. I got really lucky, because so many people have dead names that are painful parts of their evolution, and coming out and transitioning. Somehow, I got lucky with my name. I have sort of had this sense of always being me, even though it took a while to get to a place where I was comfortable being out about who that person was.

SET HERNANDEZ RONGKILYO: As I come to understand more about what my queerness means for me, I just feel like I'm not hiding anything. Because being undocumented and being queer, you always have to hide in the darkness of society, especially if you're growing up in more dominant societies, like Judeo-Christianity or the US. What I appreciate about owning my queer identity now is, I can be whoever the fuck I want. I'm not hiding. There's this weight off my shoulders where I'm allowed to discover who I can be without feeling constrained by something pulling me back all the time.

KIM YUTANI: For me, I think it feels like you're part of a secret club. I really like that notion that you are an outsider, and you have a special language, and a special way of identifying with other people who are part of that club. It feels like a little bit of a superpower to me.

LINDSEY DRYDEN: That's exactly what I was thinking about. I was at SXSW and watching a film called Saint Frances. And David Ninh from Kino Lorber (editor’s note: David is now at Netflix) was sitting next to me. We hadn’t met yet; we didn't know each other. But we each noticed that we were both moved, crying, and laughing at exactly the same moments. We ended up holding hands during the screening—having never met before—because we were having the same experience, because we were part of that secret club that you mentioned. And those moments and those feelings of recognizing something in each other and recognizing a shared experience, I think that's pretty damn amazing. 

JESS SEARCH: I think I've benefited enormously from the outsider perspective. Being part of a sub-community in that way, to have a community you need to be part of, is so strengthening. It's just a huge joy to build your own family and be part of a community like this, is it not?

SAM FEDER: I just thought about irreverence, and not in a disrespectful way, but as the lack of framing around the sort of success a lot of people feel they achieve when they are reverent towards expected establishments. There is a celebration of that irreverence within the queer community that I appreciate. 

Also the sex. I mean, that was actually the first thing that came to mind, but I was like, I don't know if that's appropriate. 

LINDSEY DRYDEN: Same here. I was like, Wait, are we talking about film here or can we just say sex? Because that's surely the first answer. 

SAM FEDER: Really, that's why we all got into being queer, right? Like, that's really what it comes down to. 

JD: Speaking of sex, irreverence, and being an outsider, how do y’all think respectability politics influences our self-identified progressive film community, and what that means particularly for us as queer folks within that? 

YANCE FORD: Oh, God. We could talk about this forever and ever and ever and ever. Just like there's respectability politics in the Black community, which is problematic and needs to be rooted out and completely done away with. I think that there's also this idea of "good progressive" and "bad progressive." 

I think that being genderqueer, for example, doesn't necessarily check the box of respectability. When it comes down to brass tacks and making decisions about who's going to get support and who's not going to get support, there is a lingering discomfort with artists who make folks uncomfortable.

In the field overall, there have been a ton of LGBTQ+ filmmakers who have sacrificed to make really incredible work, who haven't necessarily reaped the benefit of that work in the same way that straight, cishet, white men have reaped the benefit of that kind of work. If they were equally valued, they would be at different places in their careers.

KIM YUTANI: Working at Outfest for so many years and seeing how Outfest fit in with the queer festival circuit, I was always wanting to push the boundaries of what queer film was to Outfest in particular. I received a lot of pushback on that because certain audiences feel complacent in what feels right to them, what their comfort zone is, within a certain type of film that they want to see. Essentially, people want to see themselves represented on screen. When you're working with a festival that is predominantly catering to a certain type of person, that can shape what that festival’s program is.

With Sundance, we have different goals, or there are different things that we need to accomplish. We're world-premiering films; we're a place where people are selling their films and launching their films. But I do think that my intent is the same with Sundance as it was with Outfest. I always want to be pushing audiences and looking towards the future and making sure that we are not happy being complacent, and we are challenging ourselves and audiences. 

Viridiana Lieberman filming athletes. Courtesy of Viridiana Lieberman

VIRIDIANA LIEBERMAN: What Kim said about challenging audiences, that is the future I want to live in. I wrote a lot about representation theory when I was in grad school, and all I did was study the patterns of what Hollywood has done in the way they tell stories. The minute we get into whatever the next box is, we lose sight of the original vision, which is really just truth and authenticity. When you said that about challenging audiences, I was like, it's not about confronting for the sake of it, it's just about staying true to what the story is and not adding any layers to make it more accessible, whatever that means. 

SAM FEDER: There's also a respectability politics around language that we see being constantly pushed and challenged by younger people that often the older ones get grumpy about. And I remember when I was of that younger group and feeling like I'll know I'm old when I start to get grumpy about what the younger people want. But I also know that they know what's right, what they're doing is ultimately the future, and we have to let them lead. 

So that's sort of the crossroads of respectability politics that I find myself in a lot. Normative stuff? Nah. Obviously, that's not interesting to me and I don't think that gets any of us anywhere. Following the respectability politics around, that is never part of my practice. But following what the younger people are saying, even if it makes me uncomfortable, that's definitely always something I'm thinking about.

JESS SEARCH: I feel like it's maybe more of a challenge for younger people, because they actually have the option of being totally sucked into respectability if they want to. Maybe I’m the last generation that never had that option, thank God, so it never came up. But do I judge anyone who just wants to be "normal"? No, of course not. 

PJ RAVAL: I think it's a classic case of burden of representation. There are so few opportunities for queer filmmakers, queer stories, and queer narratives on screen. So the idea is, if you present the story of someone who maybe is not the model citizen, then are you doing a disservice somehow. As someone who's also Asian American, we're so burdened by this idea that we have to present this fictional narrative of the model minority. Similarly, there's the model queer and they are typically white, cisgendered, upper-class, gay men that can afford to adopt, and have great wardrobes and great jobs. 

And when you don't fit into that, it's confusing to people, because that is what we're supposed to be putting forward. Personally, I am not interested in those kinds of stories, and there's always been this kind of pushback. That gets really difficult, because as we start acknowledging the landscape of the films that are being made, including the kind that I’m making, then we also have to recognize that, within that spectrum, there are still issues of white supremacy and classism that are being hidden under the veil of LGBTQ+ or queer. 

SET HERNANDEZ RONGKILYO: I appreciate what PJ is bringing into this lens of intersectionality. I'm going to bring in my experiences with being undocumented, because in the undocumented space, there is this desire to be a model immigrant so that you can "earn" your citizenship. And that framing is just so awful. When I think about the stories that I like watching, I like complicated antiheroes who are semi-bad, semi-good people. I wish there was more space for us to tell stories about people who are complicated. Because for me as a queer person, as an undocumented person, as a Filipino person, an Asian person, there are expectations of who people from my community are supposed to be to earn respect, instead of just embracing the inherent dignity that we already have.

LINDSEY DRYDEN: I just wanted to add something about the economic questions here because I think in the documentary space, that's where this starts to get problematic. Some time ago, I was on a jury for a film fund where the commissioners were ultimately making the decision, but they were being informed by some additional perspectives. It was not too surprising—but still depressing—to feel the different response to the pitches of white, non-disabled, cishet, queer filmmakers. There was a fat, messy, artistic queerness that they were extremely uncomfortable with. It made them doubt those filmmakers’ storytelling skills, because they weren't comfortable with their presentation. And I think that's a perspective to consider—who gets to tell stories, and who's making the decisions about who gets to tell stories. 

"Queering my work is now front of mind all the time because otherwise, I disappear." - Yance Ford

JD: That really gets to the particularity of obstacles for queer and trans stories. Which LGBTQ+ films are greenlit, get high profiles, are seen as awards films? Our team at Multitude just produced Pray Away, about conversion therapy, which premiered at Tribeca this month and is launching on Netflix in August. When we were fundraising for that film, I thought it would be easier because we’re a queer-led company. But so many straight financiers and gatekeepers were like, "But is this the most pressing LGBTQ+ issue?" As if we’re in competition for the most tragically urgent queer story. It’s also such a liberal, coastal point of view; these decision-makers are out with us at parties and we’re "fun" and "happy" and not pouring out our hearts about our trauma. And that made me think more deeply about how we can make queer films that don’t fit the expectations of largely straight gatekeepers. 

JESS SEARCH: There was a period, certainly at Channel Four, and around the beginning of the work that we did at Doc Society, where there was still a real sense of "queer stories need to be told," because this is a group that is really fighting for recognition. And then, post the big gay marriage kind of successes, there was a sense that that historic work had been done and therefore, it's less important to fund those stories. 

We’ve been trying to raise a queer film fund and get other funders to join us in it. And I realized, If other gatekeepers are not themselves part of the community, and therefore not feeling things on a visceral level, then maybe they've missed some of this bigger political significance. Because the way that I see it is that queer lives, in particular trans lives right now, are weaponized at the forefront of what the right is doing in the culture wars.

But does every story that we tell need to be about our urgent issues? Actually, is liberation built on only telling urgent issue stories? 

LINDSEY DRYDEN: I’m just going to bring up something that's already been discussed: the need for trauma or for pathologizing. I've been involved in telling stories that have done that, that have focused on representations of trauma as a way into the stories of a particular community. And I wouldn't do that now, in a way that I have done in the past. I'd really love to switch on the TV and watch something joyful and beautiful, and hopeful that also happens to be queer. But is there space to tell stories that aren't about the trauma of queer experiences? I don't know if we're there yet. 

Our job is to make the best possible case for telling stories that make us feel amazing as well as stories that address the traumas and difficulties and challenges of LGBTQ+ lives.

VIRIDIANA LIEBERMAN: And can we tell them at all without it being about that? Last Christmas when we finally got our lesbian rom-com and still it was about coming out. I mean, it's one of those moments where you're just sitting there and you're like, Agh! So, the story is always about trauma and the absolute unpacking of identity. It could just be about navigating the world and solving the mystery that has nothing to do with your personal identity. 

KIM YUTANI: There is the idea of feeling that you have to tell a certain type of story in order to be successful. I think maybe that's the thing that I see all too often. I feel like that's not even specific to being a queer filmmaker. There are some very rigid ideas that are self-imposed and are preventing filmmakers from telling the story that they could be telling, with a certain kind of freedom along with that.

YANCE FORD: I do think that whether it's conscious or unconscious, there is this kind of shying away from films that are "difficult or challenging" or aren't meant to deliver a warm and fuzzy feeling at the end.

Those films have a tough time in general. But I think that queer films, specifically, if they don't match with what I'll say is the majority’s idea of what story we need now from the queer community, those films have a really difficult time. Part of it is this progressive kind of prioritizing. What’s the story that we think—and "we" is never us—what's the story that we think should be the one that should be told now? And if what I'm seeing isn't it, then I'll just vote for something else. 

And notice, I'm not saying anything like "important" or any of those things that documentaries always get accused of being like. "Oh, you expected such and such to win, because it's ‘important.’" What about entertainment?" It's just this whole nonsense way of dismissing films that deserve attention and that deserve to be recognized. 

JD: Exactly! Last Oscar season, our team looked back at the Best Documentary category in its entire history and only five LGBTQ-themed features, including Strong Island, have ever been nominated. Strong Island was nominated in 2018, which you’ve already shared not everyone acknowledges is queer-themed. Then before that, we had How to Survive a Plague, nominated in 2012 about ACT UP and the AIDS epidemic; Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker, nominated in 1992 about conversion therapy; Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt won in 1989, about the AIDS memorial quilt; and The Times of Harvey Milk won in 1984, about gay rights activist Harvey Milk. So we saw two wins and a nomination in the height of the AIDS epidemic, then a nomination in 2012 looking back at AIDS activism, then your nomination for Strong Island. It was such a moment of recognition of all the amazing queer films that were missing—last year alone we could have nominated Disclosure and Welcome to Chechnya

YANCE FORD: I don't know if people are even aware that they do that. But it's so clear if you look at the pattern, and for crying out loud, from 2012 to 2017! And then before that, 1992? Come on now. I could name a slew—did Kate Davis's film [Southern Comfort] get nominated? Did it get shortlisted? Did Celluloid Closet? Did Tongues Untied? There are so many films.

If you get to the unfortunate place of making a film that makes people uncomfortable, what you then have to deal with is the consequences of other people's discomfort with your work. Then it's no longer about your work. It's about the discomfort of the audience, which is sad and troubling, because the folks who are uncomfortable also happen to be the folks with the power and money. 

Especially coming out of COVID, and especially in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the way in which the country sort of rose up and said, "We're not going to take this anymore"—I think that people who are in these positions need to take a step back and look at how they make decisions from their comfort zones. 

There was a time when people embraced difficult work or work that emerged from a part of life and existence that they didn't necessarily occupy, but were still curious about. Curiosity is really underrated. It's lost a lot of traction.

JD: Another lightning round: Is there anything you're tired of explaining to people about your queerness? Or your identity overall?

SAM FEDER: Just hearing that question made me tired. I'm very tired of having to explain why it's ethical to pay people. I'm tired of having to explain that Netflix paid us half of what it cost us to make our film, and that people are surprised about that. I am tired of how much it costs to make a film. It cost $1.2 million to make Disclosure. That's a lot of money, and we fight tooth and nail for a $20,000 grant from people we adore. And then I'm criticized for going with Netflix, but is anybody else going to give us the money to make our films? 

I'm also just tired of talking. I just want to make the work. I did not expect that I would have to be public-facing with Disclosure, and I'm tired of the fact that because I'm a queer trans director, I had to be public-facing about it. I thought that they just wanted to hear from Laverne. You know, she is the actress, she is a public-facing person. But they kept pushing me forward to talk about it because of my identity. 

And then I'm tired of the question of why people should care about queer and trans filmmakers.

YANCE FORD: I think that what's really funny is if you watch fiction today, it's all pretending to be documentary. They're all shot like docs, they're cut like docs. 

And then I have meetings where people ask me, "Well, what do you think the transition from being a documentary filmmaker to being a fiction filmmaker is going to be like?" And I’m, like, "Have you watched your own content recently? Do you see that you guys are doing what we do and you're just doing a little bit less good a job?"

It’s tiring reminding people that filmmaking is filmmaking, whether what's going to happen is because you have a script, or you don't know what's going to happen because you have a real live person and their life unfolding in front of you.

JESS SEARCH: I feel like, maybe because I'm older and the times have changed, I don't really feel like that happens to me anymore. I mean, obviously, I spent my twenties with straight men asking me such boring questions over and over again. Maybe they're just not asking me questions anymore.

PJ RAVAL: For me, what's been really exhausting is I feel like we have these great conversations about inclusion and ways to change the industry. When I released my film Call Her Ganda, I thought about inclusion in terms of how I'm going to make this film. We had producers that all identify as Filipino and a lot of them queer. But how many queer reviewers were going to write about my film? How many Filipinos were actually in the position to see my film and distribute it or write about it? It’s very few still. 

JD: I also wanted to reflect back on any positive developments that you've seen over time. It could either be a broad industry development or, for me, it was really inspiring to see Sam build the paid apprenticeship program into Disclosure and that model being something that's replicable across films and can concretely address issues of access. That was a really forward-moving thing. 

SAM FEDER: Often people want to know, "Oh, Sam, what positive representation have you seen?" And of course, I think representation is really complicated and I'm not sure representation is the answer for anything. There's a lot of layers to that. Visibility makes people more vulnerable. But the antithesis to negative representation is not positive representation. The antithesis to negative representation is nuanced representation, complicated representation, messy representation. 

I finally saw it with Veneno on HBO Max. In terms of just trans representation, I think we finally are seeing that we can have all the tropes and the stereotypes of sex work, of criminalization, of violence, but when it's done with love and context and nuance, then it’s a world I want to jump into. 

Sam Feder on the set of 'Disclosure.' Courtesy of Sam Feder

PJ RAVAL: Funny enough, Sam, I've been watching that series, and tonight I'm watching the very last episode. My partner and I've been watching it every night. Loving it because they are embracing the complexity of it all. 

What gets me excited is allyship. I do feel like I am seeing lots of people who say I want to make inclusive films that will center different races, and women, and queer people, which is exciting. 

As much as I love to complain about the younger generation, I'm very excited about them. I think they're making some amazing work. I love the way they just wear it on their sleeve. 

YANCE FORD: I started in public television in 2002 and I was one of the only African-American employees at POV for the majority of my time there. And I think that now in the public television space and other spaces, it's much more diverse, it's much more inclusive. We've brought in other voices that have not had a seat at the table, in decision-making and in other parts of the process.

But I always feel like there's just so much more to do. As soon as Pride started, my inbox was full of "We Celebrate Worldwide Pride" emails. And I'm like, Do you really? Because if you did, you would do LGBTQ+ content. You’d have it as part of your lineup, more than one or two films. 

So I think that there is a part of that question that can only be answered by doing straightforward counting of how much representation is in the field. How many queer filmmakers are making work? How many films about LGBTQ+ communities are being done? Who are the authors of those films? 

VIRIDIANA LIEBERMAN: This is going to sound really cliché, but I think it's true, which is the pros and cons of the accessibility of content right now. Everybody always talks about how there are too many channels and streamers. But there is a counter to that: although there are still gatekeepers, there are so many of them and such a desire for content. And this is coming from someone who maybe gets to watch one show every two months. But when I do have to watch something, I always find something that's so niche, that's so particular, that can be so specific—it can be so new. The battle of content, which can get completely ugly and toxic, also lets some things emerge that kind of blow your mind and are advancing us faster than we ever would in the days when there were six slots in the evenings on primetime. 

YVONNE WELBON: I know I'm the oldest person here. And at this moment that we're in, where there seems to be a lot of opportunities, I've seen it before in the ’90s. It was called multiculturalism and it was also a moment where there was the rise of neoliberalism, so it didn't really last. I am hopeful this time around, because there seem to be some structural changes happening within the institutions. Also the gatekeepers, those who are making the decisions, are actually more diverse than they were back in the ’90s. 

JD: I appreciate you bringing us to the reminder of how change is cyclical and we can have progress and backlash, or progress and regress, and sometimes that leaves us with net progress and sometimes that doesn't. And what it means emotionally and practically to keep a long view toward the industry that we want. Would anyone else like to add to this before we wrap up? 

LINDSEY DRYDEN: I feel hopeful about the sex. 

JD: Positive developments. Great. 


Jessica Devaney is the founder and president of Multitude Films, an LGBTQ-led production company known for Pray Away, Call Center Blues, Always in Season, and The Feeling of Being Watched, among others. She founded QueerDoc and co-founded the Queer Producers Network. 

Jot Sahi, Associate Producer at Multitude Films, contributed to the editing and convening of this roundtable.

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