Politics Is Personal: A Conversation with Tim Kirkman,
Director of "Dear Jesse"
by Aaron Krach
Tim Kirkman “always dreamed ‘Dear Jesse‘ would get theatrical release,”
but he assumed it would “probably end up on television somewhere.” After
a year of touring festivals, and public television rejecting him, Cowboy
Booking (“The Beyond“) chose Kirkman’s film to be the company’s first
documentary release. “Dear Jesse” isn’t an obvious choice for theatrical
distribution. It is a small, personal film that borders on the autobiographical.
Kirkman traveled to South Carolina on the eve of arch-conservative, Jesse
Helm’s reelection campaign. He recorded his encounters with North
Carolinians of every stripe and wove them together into a portrait of his home
state. What could have been a standard travelogue becomes ultimately
more meaningful thanks to Kirkman’s honesty about growing up gay in
North Carolina, under the evil eye of Mr. Helms. On Friday, “Dear
Jesse” opens in New York City. indieWIRE sat down with Kirkman to talk
about life before and after “Dear Jesse.”
indieWIRE: I remember seeing an invitation to a fundraiser you had a
couple years ago. Did you raise a lot of money through fundraisers?
Tim Kirkman: We had a couple of fundraisers. But we raised most of the
money independently. Through friends, friends of friends. We didn’t have
enough money before I left. We didn’t have any money and I left. The
next day, the production manager quit her job in New York, knowing I
didn’t have any money to pay her, saying “it’s going to happen.” The
next day we moved down and lived with her parents. The next day we got a
huge check, our seed money. Our fiscal agent was the North Carolina
Film Foundation. We are still raising money. I could use $10,000 right
now. I owe people who worked on it. But I don’t owe the lab anymore,
which I can’t believe. I feel very fortunate. We made this film for
iW: How did you keep the budget so low?
Kirkman: We shot the whole thing on 16mm. And a lot of Super 8 film
blown up to 16mm. The crew was usually less than four, sometimes two or
three. I felt surrounded by people who were way overqualified to make
this movie with me.
iW: “Dear Jesse” is an untraditional documentary, much more personal and
autobiographical. Was that your goal from the beginning?
Kirkman: Originally the film was a study of North Carolinians and why
they oppose or support Helms. But we realized in the editing and even in
the shooting if it’s not personal, it’s not going to mean anything. I
think the way we understand things is through stories. The story I’m
qualified to tell is mine, and that’s the only one. I’m not a political
scientist or an historian. I’m a gay man who has lived under the shadow
of a homophobic senator for most of my life. That’s what I’m qualified
to talk about and that’s why it’s a personal film. There’s a precedent
for that, largely established by a North Carolina filmmaker, Ross McElwee,
(“Sherman’s March”). We lovingly and respectfully call this film a “gay
‘Sherman’s March.'” It is a going home, road movie about reclaiming your
home and identity. I really love Michael Moore’s work, but his personality
is very different than mine. I could’ve gone out and tried to harass Jesse
Helms, and that could have been an interesting film. But I’m just the
wrong person for that.
iW: Jesse Helm’s spirit is present throughout “Dear Jesse” although he
is almost never on screen. Did you ever plan to actually interview him?
Kirkman: Early on we contacted his office because he was running for
reelection. We thought, ‘Oh this is perfect he’ll want to talk.” No. He
doesn’t talk to the media. He controls the media. So early on we
realized this wasn’t going to happen. And the more I thought about it,
the film isn’t about Helms. He’s a symbol or a device for talking about
these issues, which leads to a larger question. Is Helms largely an
invention of or for gay people? He is very real given his politics, but
he propels the gay rights movement forward. Without him it wouldn’t be.
iW: “Dear Jesse” kind of escaped the gay film festival trap, playing in
a wide variety of gay and straight festivals. Were you surprised by that
Kirkman: With “Dear Jesse”, I’m finding people will find their story in
my story. I think people will say that about a lot of documentaries.
I’ve had countless boys who’ve grown up in the South say, “that’s my
story.” I always knew my story wasn’t special. In London, we had a
screening at The London Gay/Lesbian film festival. It went really well.
I was worried that the Brits wouldn’t know who Jesse Helmes was. They
all knew who he was. It was packed. So I was riding this wonderful wave,
and I did this Q&A that was going really well. Then we opened up to the
audience and this guy in the back. . . it was horrible. He started
slowly asking me a question, but he was really commenting on the film.
Then he started getting facts wrong like, “I know your parents disowned
you.” And I thought, ‘ok, I’ve got to correct him when I get a chance to
talk.’ Then he said, “and you moved to New York, because gay people move
to urban areas because presumably they are more tolerant, but it’s
really because the sex is so much freer. So what are you going to do
when you get AIDS?” The audience started screaming at him. No one
realized what was happening, it was so creepy and slow. It turned into
this uproar and I was escorted from the building. He was harassing me,
but it was kind of fun.
iW: You’re very honest in the film about your relationship with your
parents. When did they see the film?
Kirkman: They are so brave. They screened the film for the first time
with an audience in North Carolina. They knew what to expect, cause they
had seen a rough cut. But they didn’t know a lot of the confessional
stuff and about my feelings towards them growing up. They saw it with an
audience of people who were involved in the film. It was really a
wonderful lovefest, thus a great affirmation for them. That was a moment
when our relationship went to new levels.
iW: You didn’t go to film school and you still have your day job? Do you
feel like a “documentary filmmaker?”
Kirkman: That’s a question I’m grappling with right now. How do I
identify myself. Usually I’ll say I’m a filmmaker, but I’m really
interested doing anything that communicates ideas about Gay activism. If
it’s a book, or a performance or a film, or whatever it happens to be.
I’m less motivated by film the medium than the subject of gay rights,