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The Spirit of Dialogue and Community: Why the Theater is the Vital Venue for Arthur Dong's Documentaries

By Tom White

Brett Mathews, US Air Force 1996-98, a participant in Arthur Dong's 'Family Fundamentals'. Photo: Brett Mathews Collection.

“It comes from outrage that I pursue the projects I do,” says Arthur Dong, whose films Licensed to Kill (1997) and the recent Family Fundamentals (2002) have explored issues of grave concern to the gay and lesbian community—hate crimes and religious intolerance. But these latter films aren’t polemics or screeds—they provoke, but they also give a fair hearing to the sources of outrage—whether murderers of gay men, in the case of Licensed to Kill, or, in Family Fundamentals, conservative parents whose rigid, faith-based positions on homosexuality have created seemingly unbridgeable schisms with their gay and lesbian children.

“It’s a matter of channeling that outrage to a more constructive outcome,” Dong maintains. “With these last two projects, I don’t go in with an agenda other than to try to understand. And being open-minded is a place where I start from the get-go because my objective is to learn.”

That philosophy carries on through theatrical distribution, which for Dong is as fundamental a part of the process in pre-production as it is in the marketing stage. And vital to that strategy of targeting and reaching a specific audience is a panel of advisors, which in the case of Family Fundamentals includes representatives from conservative, faith-based communities. Assembling this panel took a certain amount of diplomacy and ingenuity to get the desired mix. “It was done very carefully and deliberately,” Dong recalls. “For this project I had to do a different kind of homework, which was to delve into and meet people from this other community that I really had nothing to do with. I sought out people whom I thought would be interested in what I was trying to do. I didn’t go after Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson—there was no reason to do that, and I wouldn’t have wanted that kind of combative energy.”

Nonetheless, Dong did actively recruit individuals whose points of view were antithetical to his enough to give one pause. “I can understand where a person might say ‘Why are you even inviting them to the table when you know that what they’re thinking about you is so untrue to what you are?’ But where does that take me? It doesn’t advance the dialogue. I think there are many ways to social justice and, this is one way I thought to do it with this project.”

The advisors were instrumental in helping to lend balance to the film, and Dong had no qualms about involving them in the editing process. “As a filmmaker who jumps from project to project, I can’t be an expert in everything, so I always rely on a panel of advisors. I would send them cuts saying, ‘Did I put this in the proper context so that your constituency can understand what I’m saying and react to it in a civilized manner?’ Sometimes they’d point out glaring parts that they thought were not right for them. It would be up to me, of course, to adjust it while still maintaining the integrity of the project.”

Since completing the film, Dong has taken Family Fundamentals around the country—to festivals, community centers and conferences—wherever his target audiences may be. Last summer, through Independent Feature Project/West’s Project: Involve, he screened the film to a conservative, church-going audience that he and IFP assembled through an aggressive marketing campaign; he also was invited to screen his film at the National Faith Leadership Project conference in Washington, DC, at which 25 leaders from various faith communities engaged in a discourse about gay and lesbian issues; and last month he oversaw a public screening of audiences from local fundamentalist churches in Laramie, Wyoming—the site of the Matthew Sheppard murder case. This month he rolls out the film to theaters in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley on October 11, which is National Coming Out Day.

It is this spirit of dialogue and community—using the documentary as an impetus for further inquiry and dialogue on specific issues—that underscores Arthur Dong’s emphasis on the theater as the vital venue for showcasing documentaries. The fact that self-distribution is such an inextricable component of his whole process actually cost him significant funding from Independent Television Service (ITVS) two years ago.

Although ITVS, which had supported Dong’s Coming Out Under Fire (1994), was prepared to provide both research and development funds and full production support, it would only allow a 56:40 version of his film, and it insisted on controlling domestic pre-broadcast distribution. Dong went to the National Coalition of Independent Broadcast Producers, a watchdog organization mandated by the US Congress. The coalition used Dong’s contract as a test case, and although negotiations did not go in his favor, ITVS has since reassessed its position on theatrical distribution and broadcast lengths.

Two years later, Dong remains supportive of ITVS as it continues to evolve. “I try to take it from their point of view. Even if they had wanted to give me the points that I wanted, maybe they couldn’t have. They expressed that they are changing, that PBS itself is changing in terms of how to view theatrical distribution and how it may indeed enhance the television broadcast, and they are now allowing different lengths. In some ways, ITVS had a right to ask for certain requirements because they were putting in most of the money, and I have to respect that. That’s why I walked; from their point of view they had their criteria, and it just didn’t mix with what I had envisioned. But good things will happen, and they will continue to happen. That’s the positive side of negotiations.”

This loss of funding, of course, posed challenges, but Dong did manage to cobble together enough grants from foundations to get the film made. Although he raised less than what ITVS would have provided, Dong saw this shift in revenue as an opportunity to rethink his film—and make it on his own terms. “It was all for the better anyway in the end,” he reflects. “Instead of having a full crew, I had to figure out what to do without money. Luckily the Sony PD150 came out, and the visual and audio capabilities were just outstanding. I’d always wanted to be a cameraman anyway, so I said OK, I’m just going to do it. I’m making the film in a way that I had envisioned, and I can make decisions based on what I think is fair. It’s not that as an independent artist I would not want to collaborate and share that control and distribution, but I just need to make sure it’s also a part of my vision.”

Dong carries that passion and vision for docs in the theaters through his newly elected position on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, representing the Documentary Branch. “What’s come to light in the past few years, which has been very disturbing, is that some funders and broadcasters are restricting their filmmakers from having their films in the theaters widely. The academy is a theatrical organization, and we want to promote films in a theatrical setting so that documentaries can have that theatrical experience. Part of our struggle to be recognized as a branch is to convince the entire board of governors that documentaries indeed have a theatrical presence, that we do play in theaters to a paying audience.”

For Dong, taking the documentary to the theaters goes beyond sharing a viewing experience—it’s creating awareness of the issue at hand. “Part of getting the word out for me is having the feature stories and reviews in the mainstream papers and having people read about the film. Although they’re not flocking to the theaters, they know about it and they may book it when it’s available for use in the classroom. That’s a part of the outcome of theatrical distribution. There’s something about it that calls out the media to pay a different kind of attention to a film.”

“There is an environment for documentary makers to book their own films in the theaters if they’re willing to,” he continues. “I can understand where they just rather would not deal with this, and that’s a totally valid choice. But if one complains that one can’t get his or her documentaries into the theater, there’s no excuse for that because you can. You have to get your press and you have to get your posters, but it doesn’t cost nearly as much as producing a film. If you can raise money to get a film made, then you can raise money to get it out to theaters.”


Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.