Family Fundamentals
feature by Carrie Gorringe, 15 March 2002

"Well, Mom, there's something I've been meaning to tell you…" It's a phrase that puts most parents onto the precipice between good and bad news, as they breathlessly wait for the "push" that will send them over one edge or another. For politically conservative and fundamentalist Christian parents, the revelation that their children are gay or lesbian must be the worst scenario imaginable; how, asks Oscar©-nominated filmmaker Arthur Dong, does a parent (or can a parent) of a particularly rigid mindset, cope with the prospect of having a child whose sexuality, in their opinion, contains within it "the very element that will lead to the destruction of the human race"? Dong, himself gay, has constructed his latest documentary, Family Fundamentals, along the same lines as he has his other films, Coming Out Under Fire (a study of gays in the military) and Licensed to Kill (about individuals who feel free to kill gays because of biblical and societal justifications). His trademark approach to documenting anti-gay attitudes towards gays and lesbians -- creating empathy for those who hold often frightening views concerning homosexuality without resorting to histrionics -- is on full display here. This time, however, Dong takes this topic beyond the all-too easy opportunity to examine what some might call the ultimate in delicious ironies: he also appears to be "redefining" what it means to be a gay or lesbian though examining the prejudices that confine them within both far-right and far-left political beliefs. In so doing, the filmmaker hopes to encourage dialogue between the various doctrinal and personal cross-sections of gay and-anti gay societies.

In order to accomplish this goal, Dong has chosen three individuals, all of whom represent a disparate cross-section of the gay and lesbian community. Susan Jester, a community redevelopment specialist for the state of New Jersey, gave marriage, in her words, "the old college try", before coming out in her thirties (Jester's son is also gay). Brett Matthews's story has the most typical outcome of the three. Matthews is the son of a former Mormon bishop, an accomplished Air Force pilot who, following a detailed investigation, was stripped of his commission, his pension and his veterans' benefits; after a long fight with the Air Force, he has been able to obtain only an honorable discharge. The most atypical of the three is, arguably, Brian Bennett, a Vice President for Southern California Edison, a Republican, and a former political protégé of current talk-show host, ultra-Republican and former House Representative Robert Dornan. Bennett and Dornan's relationship was once so close that Dornan treated him like a son (Bennett's nickname for Dornan was, and still is, "Poppy"); pictures of the two together at various Republican functions still decorate the walls of Bennett's home.

As with any film devoted to the task of exploring attitudes toward homosexuality, it's hardly surprising that those on the right end of the political spectrum are vehemently opposed to granting gays and lesbians any leeway in the recognition of their civil rights, the approach usually taking the form of alternating between being patronizing toward these moral "inferiors" and savage attacks. Dong captures both with an ease that is remarkably measured in tone given the (usually) flammable nature of the material. The usual references to chapters in the books of Leviticus and Romans are trotted out as a justification to condemn homosexuality. Susan Jester's mother cries over the "hurt" that her daughter has inflicted upon her. Brett Matthews feels so shunned by his family that he appears to be the most psychologically broken of the three (his self-deprecating joke about being gay without having the "blessing" of either a fashion or interior-decorating sense underscores his alienation from both the straight and gay communities).

Dong, however, also takes the viewer beyond the typical realm of non-acceptance by the outside world, and reveals the anti-gay forces as representing not quite the confidently unified front that an outside observer would assume to be the case. As the documentary progresses, Jester's mother expresses her anger at some members of her group whose anti-gay stance is preventing those gays and lesbians who want to be "saved" from themselves from coming back to the church. Matthews' father, in a letter, tells his son that Satan must have led him astray because "God doesn't make mistakes", while at the same time convinced that his son is headed straight for Hell if he doesn't relinquish his homosexuality, Even with the dire predictions of a miserable afterlife, this is hardly a wholesale rejection of one's offspring; in fact, Matthews' father expresses unequivocal love for his son in his letters, although it's a love tainted by despair. Only Bennett, the one with the highest media profile, is the one for whom there is the least acceptance: Dornan and his family have shunned him for good, or unless he relinquishes his so-called gay "lifestyle." The circumstances surrounding Bennett's rejection by the Dornan family constitute the typical reaction of conservatives to gays and lesbians, but, despite the lack of a blood relationship, the pain is no less severe; Bennett often comes close to tears when the subject arises.

But Brian Bennett's problems of being accepted whole cloth aren't completely restricted to those with a right-wing mindset. Perhaps the greatest irony of Family Fundamentals lies in its reception by an audience at this year's Sundance film festival, one which has a proud tradition of supporting films with provocative themes. It was noted, in the February 12, 2002 edition of the Los Angeles Times, how little post-screening sympathy Bennett's case could muster in some quarters, to say the least. A few members of the audience expressed the opinion that Bennett's only real problem lay in pledging his allegiance to the wrong political party (The all-too-obvious fact that gays and lesbians have made little advancement into mainstream society, despite holding membership in any political party, is obviously ignored because of its inconvenience). Other members of the gay and liberal communities have been far less generous, and restrained, in their assessment of Bennett's political beliefs. Out magazine has baldly described him as a "sellout". The political director of the California Democratic Party, Bob Mulholland, was quoted as saying that if Bennett and other Republican gays had their way, "blacks would still be segregated in the South waiting for Southern leaders to change." (One wonders how Bennett's partner, himself a Democrat -- and an African-American -- might have responded to Mr. Mulholland's comments). 

Without a doubt, Bennett is the real lightning rod of the film, violating more than the other interviewees the concept of "gayness", as far as everyone is concerned. It is no accident that Dong chose to take on this project after he discovered Bennett's story; there is no question that the filmmaker, in a quiet, yet subtle, fashion, is asking gays and lesbians to extend the range of their symbolic rainbow to include political, as well as sexual, differences. In other words, they, too, have an obligation to abandon a circle-the-wagons defense strategy against any real or perceived threats from heterosexuals and begin to address the conflicts within their own group. Allowing this contradiction to go unacknowledged is the film's only weakness. More likely, this is a sin of omission, not commission, on Dong's part; he probably did not expect to be hit by a broadside from festival-goers with presumably tolerant mindsets. It's not necessarily one that harms the overall intent or content of the film, but it would have helped to demonstrate on how many levels just how support for dialogue between several groups -- not just gay versus straight -- has to be considered before any significant dialogue can occur.

It is this graduated format that influences Dong's nimble cinematic style; the viewer no sooner thinks that he/she has the pattern or the viewpoint all figured out when he/she discovers that the filmmaker's point of view is already four steps ahead, and the viewer has to race to catch up. Yet, each step can hardly be described as the result of shallow content, because, under all that ; the film consists of long takes that contain considerable detail and brisk pacing. Dong's style is recognizably from the cinema vérité school of filmmaking (with all of the characteristic hand-held camera takes, and allowing the interviewees to speak for themselves), but he never refuses to erase his own participation in the proceedings, allowing his own voice-overs and his presence during interviews to also speak for themselves. In another break from the traditional explorations of gays and lesbians subjected to heterosexual bigotry, Dong never feels the need to constantly reiterate the central humanity of his interviewees: in other words, he doesn't feel the need to stress that both homosexuality and heterosexuality are (rightly) genetically based and, therefore, equally deserving of respect. Not only would the style be inappropriate to the film's theme, but such a didactic approach would simply -- and somewhat paradoxically -- drain his interviewees of their humanity. It's a format that is central to the very point he needs to make: dialogue between two opposing sides cannot exist either in a state of rage or in chaos. By both alternating between openness and control, Dong can keep everything in balance, and keep his plea for understanding and continuous dialogue always at the forefront.

Family Fundamentals is a wryly entertaining, heartbreaking, infuriating and often hilarious film of how fundamentalist Christianity is occasionally obliged to address what it might see as the ultimate viper in its bosom. The film's tagline of "What happens when three Christian families have children who become homosexual?" has only one real answer: anything beyond what one might expect. Is it possible for all of the disparate parties involved in this civil-rights drama to, in the usual hackneyed phrase, stop talking at each other and start talking to each other instead? Dong, both wisely and sadly, has to leave that question unanswered -- for now.

The screening schedule for Family Fundamentals is:

Update: In early March 2002, Arthur Dong screened Family Fundamentals for Kathleen Bremner (Susan's mother), her parents' group, and her conference organizers. There was some criticism from the Bremners concerning the film's content (they thought that the film seemed to be too political and didn't show their " unconditional" love for their daughter and those that they were trying to 'help'), but the conference organizer for Kathleen Bremner's parents' group wants to show it at the conference next month, if she can move things around on the conference schedule. In a more unusual twist, a pastor is going to show it to his congregation in order to demonstrate that homosexuality is a sin. Aside from the Bremners and the minister, the response to the film from others has been enthusiastic.

Written, Produced
and Directed by:

Arthur Dong

Brian Bennett
Susan Jester
Brett Matthews
Robert Dornan
Kathleen Bremner

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.





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