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30 Years On, Landmark 'Word is Out' Documentary Remains Timely

By Cathleen Rountree

A panel of faces on a black backdrop. A still from 'Word Is Out' by the Mariposa Film Group collective.

In 1977, when gay rights activist Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Word Is Out, the first documentary feature devoted to gay life in the US, premiered at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. Conceptualized and produced by Gimme Shelter cameraman Peter Adair and directed by the Mariposa Film Group collective (consisting of Adair, Nancy Adair, Rob Epstein, Andrew Brown, Lucy Massie Phenix and Veronica Selver), Word Is Out highlighted evocative, articulate and often humorous interviews with 26 gay and lesbian individuals, aged 18 to 77, during a relative golden period in gay rights history. The following year, the assassinations of both Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone marked the beginning of the end of one era, and, three years later, the epochal introduction of "the gay plague."

The proximity of Milk's triumphant election to the film's 1977 release finds a celebratory reiteration in the 2008 concurrent premiere of Gus Van Sant's Milk and the re-mastered release of the pioneering Word Is Out.

Given the confluence of recent events–ranging from Milk, the passage by California voters of Proposition 8 and President Barack Obama's controversial announcement that Rick Warren (the pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California and a zealous supporter of Proposition 8, which overturned the California law ensuring the rights for same-sex marriage) would give the spiritual invocation at his inauguration, I cannot think of a more auspicious (or newsworthy) time for the re-release of Word Is Out. Just as Harvey Milk led the fight and defeat of the infamous "Briggs Initiative" that attempted to ban gay and lesbian teachers--and anyone who supported them--from the California public school system, the re-release of Word Is Out may lead a coalition against Proposition 8.

The restored 35mm print was shown at the Los Angeles Outfest and the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival in 2008. Word Is Out's original distributor, New Yorker Films, is arranging theatrical and festival bookings as well as planning a limited re-release in the US in early 2009. The 30th anniversary DVD, slated for a March 2009 release, contains the re-mastered theatrical version of the film, along with DVD extras, which include recent visits with the cast and filmmakers.

Updates with original cast members include interviews with Pam Jackson, the "fluffy" blond, who left her husband and children for Rusty Millington, her "butch" partner of nearly 40 years (they proudly report on their nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren); the woman who has since chosen a heterosexual life, even though relationships between men and women seem all but impossible to her; and the celibate man who traded sex for a creative life in the arts. Achebe (Betty) Powell sums up the gay movement in the 1970s: "We were hugely engaged in making ourselves visible, making visible that which had been hidden--our lives individually and collectively--and became a presence in a way that contradicted all the hiding."

Asked if she anticipated positive progress around GLBT issues, Janet Cole, the producer of the DVD extras, responds via e-mail: "Do I feel hopeful about gay rights in 2009? I think the battles of (small) minds will continue for a long time, well beyond my lifetime. Will things revert to where they were in the '50s? This is the $64 million question. It seems as if we have made genuine progress in our lifetime and that the culture has changed sufficiently to insure some basic levels of civil and human rights. But that won't stop fundamentalist efforts to roll back history."

As Rick Stokes reflects in the DVD extras, "Times have changed. Maybe some people have become more accepting, maybe not."

Several participants bemoan the fact that younger generations take for granted many of the rights the older generation suffered through, and fought for, during most of their lives. It occurred to me that feminists from the '60s harbor the same complaint about younger women.

Cole rationalizes, "Every generation takes things for granted. It's one of the reasons we want to revive Word Is Out on its 30th anniversary. It pre-dates all of the LGBT institutional changes: festivals, academic courses and departments, etc. So putting it into the historical discourse feels very important, given its place in our history."

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Cathleen Rountree, PhD, is a culture journalist and film critic. She reviews films for BoxOffice, and is a contributing editor and columnist at Documentary.