Macky Alston on Bishop Gene Robinson, LGBT Rights, and Making His Film, Love Free or Die

Macky Alston (Hard Road Home) returns to Independent Lens this season with his new film Love Free or Die. We sat down to discuss the genesis of his latest work and the very personal angle from which he chose and profiled his subject. Love Free or Die premieres on Independent Lens October 29 at 10 PM (check local listings).

What impact do you hope Love Free or Die will have?
It is our hope that our film will do two things:

  • Reveal to people who are not currently sympathetic that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are fully human; that the way we live and love is not intrinsically better or worse than the way heterosexual people do; that our lives and freedoms matter as much as anyone else’s and that when we are free to love and live, our families and communities are a valuable part of the fabric of humanity. On the flip side, we aim to reveal to LGBT people who have been hurt by institutionalized religion that religious people and institutions are not all anti-gay and that there are a lot of religious people, some of whom are LGBT themselves, who are heroically standing for LGBT equality.
  • Show each one of us that when we stand for justice, we can be catalysts for historic social and systemic change. In Love Free or Die, Bishop Gene Robinson chooses to tell the truth about who he is and what he believes to be right and true. His courage inspires thousands around him to do the same. Together, their stories and stands move the church for the first time in the history of Christendom and the state for the first time in American history to overturn policies that discriminate against LGBT people. The fact that where each of us stands can make a difference is indisputable. History shifted as a result of everyday people right before our eyes as we filmed Love Free or Die.

What led you to make your film about this particular person?
From a storyteller’s point of view, I was interested in Gene as a character. To the 80 million people in Bishop Gene Robinson’s church, his is a household name. For some, he is a saint – the one we’ve been waiting for – the person who embodies the fact that the Church and God can affirm LGBT people. But for many of those millions, he is the face of Satan. So many people would like to see Bishop Robinson fall. So many have worked to make that happen. One reason I wanted to make Love Free or Die was to study how anybody can bear the weight of that degree of scrutiny, of pressure, day in and day out over all these years.

But I am also aware that we are teetering at a tipping point in history; a time that will have a clear before-and-after mark that may well fall in the near future. When I was born, the notion that, in my lifetime, I could be legally wedded to my husband in my church and state and adopt my two children in Arizona and Pennsylvania, two traditionally conservative states, was ridiculous. Today, it is my reality. To document this historic shift is the assignment of a lifetime, as a filmmaker and as a gay dad.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?
Two challenges that come to mind in making Love Free or Die are in a sense two sides of one coin.

It was painful to interview, off the record and even on, clergy person after clergyperson who confessed to me that they were gay or lesbian but were unable or unwilling to come out for fear of the repercussions. Victims of the system, they spoke of their desperation for liberation, even as they were unable to join the movement to win it. Their anguish was excruciating to behold, particularly as someone who had fled that closet myself.

It was painful in a different way to interview warm, friendly clergy people who were outspoken opponents of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. They had to have known or intuited that I was gay. It was clear that they understand themselves to be operating from a place of love for me and people like me, even as they articulated their beliefs that homosexuality was evil and that my love of my husband and parenting of my children was inferior and unacceptable to God. It is not easy in an interview to hold the gaze of a person as he proclaims the ideology upon which my oppression is based and built.

How did you gain Bishop Robinson’s trust and persuade others in the film to open up?
Religion is my family business. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all pastors and I, too, have a graduate degree in theology. As a result, I speak a common language with the people in the film, wherever they stand on this issue. I think the fact that I do not see religion as the problem, but instead the way it is used all too often to oppress rather than liberate, resonated with many of the bishops. I had also worked with Bishop Robinson and many of the other subjects previously, and so was considered an insider, relative to most of the journalists who were knocking on their doors.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
There was a scene in a centuries-old church in rural England in which Bishop Robinson spoke to a packed house so compellingly. After the conversation, a large older man approached him and began to cry, saying he had left the church decades ago and that he never imagined he might return; that this was the first time back since he was exiled for being gay.

Another woman, old, withered, with crystal blue eyes, stood and asked Bishop Robinson what he made of the fact that the bible says that gay people should be stoned to death. Bishop Robinson asked her if she thought he and his partner should be killed. She said, “It is not what I am saying, it is what God commands.” After the service, she delightedly unpacked her perspective on the issue, leaving the viewer with the stark image of this nice old lady spouting language of hate as if it is God’s will and the stark truth that religion continues to provide the justification to many for violence against LGBT people.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
I have two favorite scenes. The scene on Gay Pride Day in New York City may be my favorite scene in any of my films. Intercutting Bishop Robinson’s sermon that day, the best articulation I have ever heard of the culpability of organized religion in regard to LGBT oppression and call to people of faith to stand for equality for all, and the parade in all its glory as it headed toward the church where he preached, makes me cry every time I watch it.

My other favorite scene is one in which Bishop Tom Shaw of Massachusetts, who comes out in the film, gets in a water fight with two gay dads and their four adopted boys, one of whom is Bishop Shaw’s godchild. The parents tell the story of their church’s refusal to baptize their children because their parents are gay. Bishop Shaw, as the story ends, stands, gets a child’s beach toy bucket, fills it with water, and dumps it on his godchild’s head. A drenching water fight ensues in which the dads, the boys and the bishop get soaked, laughing, joyful – the church’s previous wrong undone by the Bishop’s brave love and commitment to the family and to what he believes to be right.

What has the audience response been so far? Have Gene and the other interviewees seen the film, and if so, what did they think?
Audience response has been overwhelming. We have screened in more than 250 communities, largely by request – churches, communities centers, campuses saying that this is the film they need to crack open the conversation they are dying to have.

Openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson. Photo by Gilliam Laub.

The people featured most prominently in the film have seen and embraced it. It was shown at the once-every-three-years General Convention of the Episcopal Church this summer to hundreds who gathered. Bishops Robinson and Shaw invited me to the clergy conferences of their dioceses and I had powerful conversation with those who work for and with the bishops – hundreds of local pastors – about the ramifications of having gay bishops and how this issue is critical in the lives of their congregations. Not everyone is on the same page on this issue at these gatherings, but the film has served well to create a space where people can stand for LGBT equality without demonizing or dehumanizing those who are not there yet.

Any updates since you finished the film?
Yes. Bishop Gene Robinson decided it was time to move on from the Diocese of New Hampshire in order to stand for global justice as a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and develop a center at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in DC to promote civil discourse and conflict resolution around the issues that divide us in the public square.

Interestingly, Archbishop Rowan Williams also decide it was time to move on from helming the Anglican Communion as its titular head. He will step down from his post at the end of 2013.

The Episcopal Church gathered again in 2012 for the first time since its 2009 General Convention depicted in the film. It took the next set of bold strides toward the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, among them, the approval of a liturgy for the blessing of same-gender marriages.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
There is nothing quite as exquisite as beholding the beauty of real life and then capturing it, even heightening it, in film. Because none of it is fiction, though certainly there is much art and eye involved, it all feels like revelation – the scene beheld in real life and then in the edit room and then on the screen.

That said, this work is really hard. It is labor intensive and you do not do it for the money. I have directed five feature documentary films. At the end of each, I am convinced I will never make another. Yet each time I have come to that conclusion, a new story has grabbed me by the neck and flung me down a new road. Convinced that Love Free or Die is my final word in documentary form, I also find myself peering around each corner to see what story is headed my way, looking to claim me for the years ahead.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
My first film, Family Name, premiered on POV in 1998. I have had great experiences with other broadcast partners, but it is to PBS that I most regularly turn for documentaries that will change my life and I am not alone. I am thrilled that people across the country can — at no cost — connect with this critical story on a station they know and trust.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I didn’t sleep much. The 3 AM hour was where I met all my fears on a daily basis. As a father of two kids with a stay-at-home husband, the family relied on me for food on the table and health benefits. I have a magnificent day job that allowed me to go make this film when I had to, but this work is not easy. I am unspeakably grateful to my family and to my colleagues for providing the support and space to follow my star.

What are your three favorite films?
Today, off the top of my head, I will say that my three favorite fiction films are:

Shoot the Piano Player, directed by Francois Truffaut
The Piano, directed by Jane Campion
Days of Heaven, directed by Terence Mallick

The film that made me become a documentary filmmaker is Time Indefinite by Ross McElwee.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Pick a topic that your life depends on understanding better. When I made my first film, I presumed it would never get completed and once it did, it wouldn’t be any good, so I picked a topic that I felt I had to explore in order to come to life, that would transport and transform my life and understanding, whether the film was good or bad.

With stamina, a good idea, and the willingness to simultaneously listen to the counsel and criticism of others and hold true to your vision, you can make a great film. I promise.

What sustains and literally fuels you when you’re making an independent film?
Wine. Coffee. Chocolate. Repeat.

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  • javacock@hotmail.com

    This film was very well done. It shows the struggle of LGBT people, the world and the church’s disapproval of this “lifestyle” – a lifestyle that was created by God, not people. How can the “straight” community believe the nonsense that gay people choose this life? Would anyone choose to be ridiculed, beaten, mocked, and even killed for being gay? How can anyone believe that the old, rode-to-death horse of Sodom and Gomorrah be about homosexuality? It was concerning the sin of inhospitality, not homosexuality. The churches need to read, study, and preach the truth. With programs like Macky Alston’s perhaps their blind eyes will one day see. This is a film well worth watching time and again.

  • parterre

    I am watching the film. I guess I mainly feel that he is tearing apart his denomination for his own selfish reasons.

  • parterre

    Let’s worship ourselves, because we’re gay!

  • helselphil

    Thanks javacock for your comments. I’m a clergyperson & hope that I can help my denomination change on this issue and be an advocate for people seeking to love God and flourish. A beautifully done film–thank you for framing this as an issue of justice.

  • muyiwa_adeleke

    Ignorance is not an excuse before the Almighty God. I believed that President Obama knew no better about his inaugural openning.

  • Counselor Carol

    When my Catholic husband and I (definitely a backsliding Southern Baptist – who felt mostly shamed by many in the church I attended as a child) chose to have children and wanted to make an well educated decision about where we would attend church and in which church we wanted to raise our children, we chose to attend the Episcopal Church in which my father was raised. We chose this church for many reasons:
    1) I felt my husband’s refusal to join another church with the family God gave us and his willingness to raise our children Catholic for no other reason except it was how he was raised – he had not practiced Catholocism since his mother made him and could give no convincing reason why Catholocism was “the way” for any of us and yet would still argue it was the way – was indicative of precisely the reason why I told him he would have to step over my dead and decaying body to Christen our children Catholic. It’s almost like a cult how Catholics stick together, despite their numbers in the world – it’s not like they are in danger of being extinguished as a religion if someone decides to go to another church – and simply seems like dynasty rather than character building. Their exclusionary practices in rites such as communion – which in its conception was meant to be in-clusionary – were disturbing to me. Celibacy had before, and has certainly since, been proven to be perhaps not such a sound decision for sinners such as we humans are by nature. Catholocism is clearly still feeling its way in the dark ages regarding procreation and the care of women and children. After having experienced highly effective group counseling requiring the assistance of some benevolent higher power with participancts who had been alienated by the Catholic church – making the saints and Mary seem to stand between God and the believer and function more like idols than intercessors.
    On the other hand, I had positive experiences with Catholicism as a child – finding the church to be somewhat inclusive since parishioners were not required to dress up/uncomfortably as they had in my childhood church and there were likely to be people of differing ethnicities in attendance on any given Sunday (or Friday or Saturday, which I thought was kinda cool as well, and saw also as an attempt to connect with the people).
    2) As our young family visited churches of differing denominations, it became evident my husband did not feel as though he had been to church unless given the opportunity to stand, kneel, and take communion. Though the baptist church had some structure in the Sunday service, I did not recognize much adherence to church calendar or predicatble liturgy. As an adult and counselor, I could not deny or underestimate the structure or comfort afforded by such predictability.
    3) I appreciated, though we dressed more nicely than the Catholics, an inclusivity in the Episcopalian church. I noted we had regular congregants of differing ethic groups and nicely dressed young men attending our services alone who I thought might be gay and in need of a church home, much as we were. I thought they too may have been alienated by the Catholic Church and, like us, appreciated the similarities among the liturgy amongst less hell fire and damnation. I thought it beautiful my church could provide a home for so many differing individuals and this was certainly as our Lord would want.
    4) Our Episcopal pastor was also raised Baptist and seemed to speak to me specifically when giving his sermon or writing our regular newsletter. I loved and respected him and my husband and I attended classes at our church to become Episcopalian. Apparently, I spoke to him as well – as he commented to the congregation – when I nontraditionally chose the Sunday before the New Millenium for myself and my children to be Christened because, if there was anything I wanted to be sure to have in order, I wanted to be certain my children and I were dedicated to Christ.

    When Gene Robinson was ordained, my pastor came out vehemently against his ordination in our newsletter. The voice in my heart I increasingly find to be my Father repeated over and over, “God is love”. All the while, my heart broke to hear words of fear and hate from a pastor who led our church in love for so many years. Soon, he retired, as many members of our church left to start their Anglican Church – long before I could even figure out who was on which side!
    I am proud to be a member of a church which has openly ordained a gay man and feel God’s love in this film from Gene – the love I once felt from the pastor I lost. I “judge not”, because “all have sinned and come short of the glory of the Lord” and, of all the things I can do for our Father, I do not believe God needs me to sit in judgement of others! If you truly believe the LBGT community is sinning against God, wouldn’t the obvious course of action be to welcome them into the church, instead of continually slinging judgement and hate their way? I left the Baptist church because all the hellfire and damnation did not feel representative of the loving and benevolent God we all need to simply survive the world today.
    My favorite part of the film was when the woman pastor was speaking of feeling confused and abandoned by the church. I was absolutely stricken by the little orange tabby cat seeming to listen intently as she read Psalm 73. She read of being “ignorant, like a beast” while her sweet kitty seemed to hang on our Lord’s every word. There was such irony and profundity in this scene, I burst into tears. While the psalmist pleads in pain with God, he claims to be as ignorant as a beast and begs God’s intercession. Yet, by way of illustration, God’s little beast shows perfect understanding of our Father’s words and love. This leaves a question in my mind if the pastor is confused either.
    Our Lord expects and accepts our questions and imperfections. He has bestowed upon us both free will and sin nature. He only asks we seek Him for answers. On the day I am judged, I will not be faced with the sin of having come between another believer and our Father – no matter what their sin may be.