POV: Did you have a particular point-of-view in your approach to Family Fundamentals?
Arthur Dong: Having worked for the past decade on films dealing with gay issues, I’ve found that homosexuality is one of the most polarizing topics in contemporary discourse. Debates about it still spark “culture wars” over whether homosexuality should be condemned, tolerated, or celebrated. Proponents of gay civil rights are confronted with the challenge of being stereotyped by their opponents as unruly, dangerous, and immoral. Conversely, those who oppose gay causes have been regarded by advocates as fundamentally hateful and ignorant. With each skirmish, it has become increasingly harder for differing groups to work together toward a common sense of justice.
Family Fundamentals was motivated by a desire to address this deep divide. My idea was to use the most universal of social institutions, the family, to explore interpersonal and ideological differences. I saw the families in the film as microcosms of larger social and political debates and I’m hoping their personal stories will offer a more compassionate perspective on an issue that continues to tear apart not only families, but also communities and our nation.
POV: How do you feel your previous work, such as Licensed to Kill and Coming Out Under Fire, influenced Family Fundamentals?
Dong: With each of these films, the focus has become clearer in regard to my quest to understand American contempt for homosexuality. In Coming Out Under Fire I documented the U.S. military’s World War II policies against gays in the military which were officially based on a belief that homosexuals were sexual psychopaths and mentally ill. For “Licensed to Kill” I studied the lives of convicted murderers whose victims were gay men. Their motivations were varied: educational background, alleged child abuse, the media, homosexual panic, and most often, religious conditioning. It was these stories of church-taught disdain for homosexuality that I found most intriguing, partly because they were so prevailing, and also because of the influential role organized religion plays in American culture and politics, despite the fact that our constitution calls for the separation of church and state.
Needless to say, organized religion is a complicated topic and not to be dealt with casually; my goal wasn’t to produce a documentary about religion, but rather a look at the conflicts that result from the intersection of sexuality, politics, and religion. The work and research I conducted on my earlier films served as a foundation to begin an examination of fundamentalism and its relation to the construction of anti-gay attitudes in our society.
Over the years, I’ve been intrigued by family situations where parents have a history of actively opposing gay civil rights, despite having gay kids themselves. I read about people like Sonny and Cher’s daughter, Chastity, whose father served in Congress and fought against gay marriages; and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly whose son came out as gay in 1992; and Mary Cheney, daughter of Vice-President Dick Cheney. As I researched other families, the Bible often came up as a point of reference — this reminded me of my work on Licensed to Kill. So I decided to focus Family Fundamentals on stories that all had one thing in common: a fundamentalist Christian foundation that condemns homosexuality.
POV: What was your process for finding the featured families?
Dong: Family Fundamentals deals with families where parents are leaders in their communities and feel they must uphold a certain public persona. For the film to succeed, I knew I had to gain the participants’ wholehearted trust since I was delving into private matters and personal stories. In terms of the conservative parents, I felt that my particular background could very well have been interpreted by them as liberal and unsupportive of their views. I thought, “Why would they even want to meet with me at all?”
My strategy included forming a diverse panel of advisors that included people these parents might respect. I invited people like Forest Montgomery, the now-retired attorney of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, and Philip Yancey, the editor-at-large of “Christianity Today”, the nation’s largest Christian Protestant magazine which was started by Billy Graham in the 1950s. To provide balance, I also invited liberal religious leaders, such as Soulforce founder Mel White, as well as scholars in the fields of constitutional law and theology. Not only did this panel serve as my entree to obtaining initial meetings with potential interviewees, but equally important, I also relied on their advice throughout the production and post-production.
After nearly half a year of research, I narrowed down the type of families I wanted into three areas: politics, reparative therapy for homosexuality, and a family where at least one parent was a church leader. I was able to identify three such families after going over thirty possibilities.
I have to mention that it wasn’t always the parents that were apprehensive, but it was also the children. Take for example Brian Bennett; he asked to see every one of my films before he agreed. He’s smart and very aware of the power of the media — after all, he was taught by one of the “best”: Bob Dornan.
I looked for stories with conflict as a way to bring out the complexities of the debate over homosexuality. And the people I wanted were still, in different degrees, going through the painful process of dealing with their families; they were not always willing to bear their feelings until I made clear my intent on producing a film that could possibly point towards a dialogue for reconciliation. I think they too saw the film as a vehicle to communicate with their estranged families.
POV: Why didn’t you include at least one family that had a “happy ending?”
Dong: I was hoping that the Brett Mathews story would’ve offered some sense of reconciliation. I spent time with his family and found them to be warm and their love for Brett was unmistakable. When they decided to discontinue their participation in the film, they never really said “No,” they said, “We need to pray about it.” For many months after my initial visit with them in Utah, Brett’s father and I had several lengthy telephone conversations and he would always end the call by saying “I need more time.” Finally it came down to the wire and I made one last request before we had to lock picture and Mr. Mathews ultimately said “No.”
I was left with the dilemma: “What do I do with this story now?” I had already shot some emotionally moving scenes and it’d be a waste to toss them out. As an artist, I saw this as a creative challenge and used the sudden turn of events to show the deep-rooted impasse that resulted from Brett’s coming out.
While there are certainly families which have resolved their differences, I chose the stories in “Family Fundamentals” precisely because they illustrated the difficult situations where you have intensely committed communities in disagreement.
The public and private confrontations over homosexuality are still going on at places of worship, at school board meetings, in voting booths, in Congress, and in families — this cultural war is forging ahead whether we want to be a part of it or not. To be sure, there have been important milestones of progressive change but the “happy ending” is not here yet.
POV: What’s your next project?
Dong: For me, finishing a film is just half the work, now comes the creation of an audience. I’m making sure Family Fundamentals does its job and to get it out there in the real world. I don’t produce a film every year — that’s because I’m distributing the film I’ve just completed. This includes developing target audiences, theatrical bookings, festival presentations, community events, and finally a national television broadcast and educational video distribution. My plans also include a comprehensive study and discussion guide so that the film can be used as a tool for social change in a wide range of settings.
Outreach and distribution is a commitment I make to my work from the outset and it’s kept me going in several ways: as validation that my films contribute to the discourse on issues I’m passionate about; as a source of income to help me survive during lean times — yes, I still receive (small) royalty checks from my 1982 film, “Sewing Woman”; and as a way to get out of the editing room to remind me that films are not made in a vacuum.