June is LGBT Pride Month, and traditionally it’s been both a time for reflection on gay history and struggles (originally created to commemorate the Stonewall riots of June 1969), along with a colorful, pride-ful celebration of many important achievements and milestones. Since Independent Lens is naturally a film-centric space, we decided to honor the occasion by reaching out to a few filmmakers who’ve made documentaries for Independent Lens, asking them to contribute their own picks for the gay-themed films (features or documentaries) that affected them most profoundly. While one important film deservedly gets mentioned twice, it’s an appropriately diverse list. [updated 2016; originally posted 2014]

Macky Alston, who directed Love Free or Die (Independent Lens, 2012), winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, writes:

French trailer for Fassbinder’s Querelle

“The first queer film to rock my world I never saw. It was [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder’s Querelle. I loved the poster and all the film stills I could find from it so much, I think that, by the time I could get my hands on it, I didn’t want to be disappointed. I wanted the film I fantasized it to be to hold my imagination, rather than [be] something that fell short. The first queer film I actually saw, or at least first film with gay love in it, I watched in a hotel room after midnight with my first love sleeping by my side. We were young and dreaming of freedom. As my love slept, I watched Making Love [1982, directed by Arthur Hiller; starring Harry Hamlin, Michael Ontkean, and Kate Jackson], and for the first time on the television that had once given me The Brady Bunch I saw a path I could follow.”

Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, whose powerful documentary God Loves Uganda [official site] aired on Independent Lens in May, 2014, wanted to point out several films that had an impact on him:

  • Parting Glances had a huge influence on me because it was the first time I saw the reality of the HIV/AIDS crisis and gay life in NY on the big screen.”
  • My Beautiful Laundrette: “This film about race and sexuality made me realize that a well-made film could be political, entertaining, and sexy all at the same time.”

  • The Crying Game: “I was blown away by the dialogue this film sparked around gender, both good and bad.”
  • Outrage: “This provocative documentary [by Invisible War director Kirby Dick] about the destructive hypocrisies of closeted gay politicians who lobby for anti-gay legislation was the spark that got me thinking about my film God Loves Uganda.”

Yoruba Richen‘s film The New Black [Independent Lens, June 15, 2014] explores the issue of gay marriage from within the African American community, and she’s also producing the upcoming documentary The Fire This Time about  young African American lesbians who were threatened and attacked in the West Village of New York City. Richen told us a few films come to mind when thinking of gay-themed features and docs that stayed with her:

From Brother to Brother
From Brother to Brother
  • Brother Outsiderthe Bayard Rustin documentary, was really seminal to me.”
  • “My friend Rodney Evans’s film Brother to Brother, set during the Harlem Renaissance.”
  • Marlon Riggs’s documentary Tongues Untied:  “What was powerful about it when I first saw it (I saw it again more recently) was the intersection of race and sexuality, how he explored the lived experiences of race and sexuality in that film were things I hadn’t been seen in any film before.”
  • Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye’s film, which I remember seeing in the theater in the ‘90s, was really important to me in terms of both storytelling and in terms of seeing a lesbian character at the forefront at the story, interpreting our history.”

Johnny Symons is a Bay Area documentary filmmaker whose films include Daddy & Papa (official site) and the Independent Lens film Ask Not (official site). Currently, he is in production on Out Run. Symons writes:

“When I think about LGBT films that most influenced me, I think back to myself at age 23. I had recently arrived in San Francisco, was immersed in gay and HIV activism, and dreamed of one day being a documentary filmmaker. I remember two stunning film screenings—both at small, packed movie houses in the Mission District—that particularly inspired me. The first was the world premiere of Tongues Untied, an experimental, politically charged, and intensely personal film about the black gay male experience by renowned Bay Area filmmaker Marlon Riggs. A few months later, I saw the West Coast premiere of Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, which documents New York’s underground ‘ball’ scene, where contestants compete for trophies, glory, and a chance to transcend their often marginalized lives. The response to both films was staggering—thundering applause that helped launch them on to widespread acclaim both inside and outside of the LGBT community.

“Together, these films illustrate how two directors can tackle similar subject matter—race, culture, community, violence, HIV, and the use of performance as a means of liberation and transformation—using dramatically different approaches. Tongues Untied is alternately forceful and humorous, angry, and poignant, unpredictable and carefully crafted—a call to action made specifically by and for the black gay male community. In contrast, Paris Is Burning is an ethnographic exploration of ball culture made by a white lesbian, marked by intimate interviews and compelling observational footage on and off stage. To me, the films were testament to the fact that both insiders and outsiders can tell moving and powerful stories thorough documentary.

“Nearly 25 years have gone by since then. Marlon Riggs died in 1994, his life and brilliant career tragically cut short by AIDS. Jennie Livingston hasn’t made another feature documentary [editor’s note: she’s actually working on a new one now]. But these two films continue to be legendary, capturing a critical moment in LGBT history and continuing to inspire filmmakers, performers, and activists.”


For David Weissman, who himself made two seminal films about gay history, We Were Here (Independent Lens, 2012) and 2002’s acclaimed The Cockettes (co-directed with Bill Weber), it’s not as much a film that comes to mind as a film festival:

“I remember going to the very first Gay Film Festival in San Francisco in early 1977.  There were about 50 of us, maybe 100, watching a few short films projected on a Super 8 film projector, with sound from a portable cassette tape recorder that never quite remained in sync with the films. 37 years later, it’s mind-boggling how the world has changed, with this year’s Frameline San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival screening hundreds of films from around the world with an extraordinary range of styles and subject matter.

“I participate in the LGBT film world not only as a filmmaker but also as co-programmer (with Russ Gage) of QDoc in Portland, Oregon, which is the only film festival in the world devoted exclusively to LGBT documentaries. So while I think it’s important to think about what we watch, I also want to encourage our community to think about how we watch. It’s remarkable to have access to so many quality LGBT films, both documentary and narrative, on PBS, HBO, and elsewhere, and streaming. But there is nothing like the experience of watching those films on a big screen, with a room full of other LGBT folk sharing our laughter, tears, and inspiration as we watch our history, culture, politics, and all our diverse stories as told by so many extraordinary filmmakers.

“If you’re fortunate enough to live somewhere with an LGBT Film Festival, support it, and enjoy!”

Here’s a trailer David put together for the 1995 Frameline festival: