Filmmaker Johnny Symons discusses audiences’ reactions to DADDY & PAPA, the cultural shift in the gay community today and filmmaking as social activism.
What has the public reaction been to your film? Has it surprised you?
The public reaction has been phenomenal. I had hoped that people would find some moments of humor in the film, but I wasn't prepared for the peals of laughter that inevitably break out in crowded theaters at predictable moments. Similarly, I wasn't expecting so many tears. Raising kids strikes a powerful chord with people, whether or not they are parents themselves. Women have come up with tears in their eyes and hugged me, confessing that the film has made them re-evaluate their decisions to not have kids. More than one elderly lady has unsnapped her purse and proudly pulled out a snapshot, saying, "This is my granddaughter and her two gay dads." And dozens of gay men have told me this is what they needed to propel them into parenthood.
Why did you make this film?
The gay community is beginning to go through a major cultural shift. After fighting for gay liberation in the 1970s, and spending the ‘80s and ‘90s coping with the huge and devastating impact of AIDS, more and more men are making a decision to create a different kind of future — in some ways more traditional, and in others more revolutionary than anything we've done before. I wanted to document this phenomenon: what it means for out gay men to form their own families - for the dads, for the kids, for their extended families and schools and communities and the thousands of mainstream people who are being changed by their exposure to a new kind of family.
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
I hope the film will demystify some of the misinformation and stereotypes about our families, and show that parenthood is parenthood, regardless of sexual orientation — the same diapers, sleep-deprivation, lunch boxes, and moments of intense joy and pride. At the same time I hope to show that our families are different too — that our rarity makes us the subjects of intense curiosity, that we have to search for community, and that as parents we need to work extra hard to make the world a safe and understanding place for our kids. I also hope the film will inspire more gay men to become parents, and encourage more social workers, judges, and politicians to use their positions of power to make this possible.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
My filmmaking is motivated by social activism. I love the opportunity to change people's belief systems, or to reveal that something that seems clear-cut is in fact quite complex. I also love the medium — using image, sound and juxtaposition to take people on an emotional and intellectual journey. I think not nearly enough people are making documentaries – we need more voices and visions out there showing us new ways to see the world.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
I'd either be a foreign journalist, a web designer or a chef.
If you could have dinner with one famous person, living or dead, who would you choose?
Jesus Christ. And I'd bring my video camera.
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
The post-production team had a debate on this one. Lindsay Sablosky
(co-producer) thrives on fun-size Almond Joys. Kim Roberts (editor) voted for very spicy vegetarian Indian food. For me, filmmaking is about endurance - I keep the caffeine pumping through my veins, usually in the form of iced tea.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Marlon Riggs' work has always inspired me. I love the combination of social activism, cultural criticism, and personal storytelling he uses in Tongues Untied. Other documentarians who have influenced me include Alan Berliner, Peter Adair and Su Friedrich.