The Making Of

Filmmaker Johnny Symons discusses his 20-year career in producing documentaries on LGBT issues and shares the challenges of making a film on a subject that people aren’t supposed to talk about.

What led you to make this film?

I wanted to create a compelling and comprehensive film about the "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy—something that went beyond standard advocacy efforts to explore the history behind the policy, the activist efforts currently underway to change it and the psychological effects of serving in combat under a federal law that prohibits you from talking about who you are. No widely distributed feature documentary had been made on the subject, which struck me as amazing given the thousands of servicemembers, veterans and their friends and family who are affected by this policy. The policy has larger implications for American citizenship itself. When a group of people is singled out and barred from participation because of who they are, not what they do, everyone is affected.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

It is inherently challenging to make a film about something that people aren’t supposed to talk about. I faced challenges in finding subjects, locating footage and telling the subjects’ stories in a way that would be more engaging than standard talking-head interviews. But transcending these challenges—making the invisible visible—was one of the things that most compelled me to make the film.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

I started making documentaries almost 20 years ago as a means of revealing the complexities of gay people’s lives and countering homophobia. There are downsides to being singularly focused on a certain theme, but my commitment to the LGBT community is evident through my work, and it helps subjects feel confident that they can trust me. The fact that I was willing to feature myself and my family in one of the films, DADDY & PAPA, helps to illustrate the importance of each of us sharing our stories.

For this project in particular, there were many people who stepped forward to tell their stories. Despite—or maybe because of—having to hide their identities while in the military, many LGBT veterans were eager to describe their experiences as a means of setting the record straight about the reality of DADT.

Do you think that when "don't ask, don't tell" was signed into law in 1993 it was an “honorable compromise”? Why or why not?

I think that President Clinton truly believed "don't ask, don't tell" was an “honorable compromise” at the time he announced the law. Unfortunately, it proved to be a policy that has been difficult to enforce, haphazardly administered and ultimately as painful and destructive as the flat-out gay ban that preceded it. The process of hiding and the uncertainty over what the rules are and how they will be enforced, are both maddening and traumatic for many LGB servicemembers, which is why 4,000 per year choose not to re-enlist. There is nothing “honorable” about fighting to uphold democracy and human rights when your own dignity and self-respect are being trampled in the process. As revealed in the film, President Clinton eventually admitted the disastrous effects of the policy.

What advice would you give to a young gay person considering military service?

In the course of making this film, I heard and witnessed countless painful stories from people who served under "don't ask, don't tell." Some people described the impact in very concrete terms: losing retirement benefits or being forced to pay back loans. For others, the loss was much more qualitative: constantly fearing being discovered, hiding one’s true identity by withdrawing and inventing webs of lies, suffering through the slow decay of a long-term relationship because it could never be acknowledged to others. If you are considering serving, you should think through these possible outcomes and decide how you feel about serving an institution that doesn’t respect your basic human rights.

I also met many people who decided to join the military despite DADT. If you do choose to enlist, I would strongly encourage you to talk to others who have already served so you know what you’re in for. Servicemembers United is a good place to start. Read everything you can about the policy, so you understand its implications (The Palm Center Web site is a great source of info.) If you think you’re likely to be outed while you’re serving, contact Servicemembers Legal Defense Network for advice on what to say and do.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

While doing archival research, we discovered footage shot by military cinematographers one Valentine’s Day, in which heterosexual soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan send messages home to their husbands and wives (“I’d like to give a shout-out to my wife in Tacoma, Washington,” says one young soldier standing in front of a tank. “I love you and miss you tons…”). It struck me as just one more painfully ironic example of how the military institutionalizes support for heterosexual couples and, in the process, ignores and marginalizes gay troops. We created a short scene with the footage and included it in the 73-minute feature film. When we cut the film down to its 54-minute broadcast length, it was the last scene to go.

I also would have liked to include more in-depth portraits of female servicemembers, as a means of revealing how women are disproportionately investigated and discharged under "don't ask, don't tell." Unfortunately, we weren't able to get enough footage to explore these stories in a compelling way.

Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?

I decided early on that I wanted this film to feel very current and to focus on young people who were immediately affected by DADT or actively working to change it. That meant following stories as they happened. The Call to Duty Tour went on a nationwide road trip to 17 locations over a seven-week period. The Right to Serve Campaign attempted enlistment at recruitment centers in 30 cities. While our camera crews did not film every one of these events, we had to capture enough key moments to get a sense of the personalities and strategies of the organizers. In each location, there were a host of logistical challenges that had to be worked out. I ended up making 14 production trips over a two-year period and also hired local camera crews in a few other locations. The result was 250 hours of footage that were ultimately cut down to less than an hour for broadcast.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

At the several dozen film festivals where the film has screened, audiences have most often expressed surprise or even shock at the impact of "don't ask, don't tell." The most frequent questions center around the speed and likelihood of overturning the law under the Obama administration. Almost all the principal subjects have seen and enjoyed the film, and many have shared moving stories of their time in the service during Q&A sessions after screenings.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

My original motivation for becoming a filmmaker was to create compelling documentary work that told complex stories about gay people and their intersection with mainstream culture. Almost 20 years later, there continues to be an enormous amount of misunderstanding about who gay and lesbian people are and what we are capable of. Fortunately, there are enough outlets for this type of work that I’ve been able to support myself in this career, while also freelancing and teaching documentary production. It brings me deep satisfaction to use the visual, audio and emotional capabilities of film to open up hearts and minds.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

The most viable route to changing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is through a majority vote of Congress plus a presidential signature. For this kind of change to take place, Americans of all types have to be motivated to alert their elected representatives that they do not support the current law. Public TV is an ideal way to reach and mobilize large numbers of American viewers. Besides being free, it has a long history of programming challenging and thought-provoking films about human rights and citizenship.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

When we finished the film, we were searching for a signature photo that would visually encapsulate the various meanings of the film. I did not have many high-res photos from the production shoots, but I had hired a freelance photographer to take pictures at the Right to Serve enlistment attempt in Times Square. Looking through her photos of hundreds of people at this event, I came across one of a young, redheaded woman with a piece of duct tape over her mouth. I loved the image and wanted to use it to promote the film—but when The New York Times sponsored a screening soon thereafter, they asked me for a release form from the subject in the picture. Since the photographer had been taking pictures in public, no release forms had been signed, and not even names had been gathered. Who was this random woman whose picture had been snapped on a New York sidewalk almost two years ago? Was there any way to find her? Using a combination of email and social networking tools, we began circulating the photo in the hopes that we could identify her. Within 48 hours, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, we received messages from three different sources, which all positively identified her. Fortunately, she proved to be charming and cooperative and eagerly signed the release.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

Cleaning the house. Improving my skateboarding skills enough to keep up with my two rambunctious sons. Sleeping!!

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