In this week’s SnagFilms spotlight, partners Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer explore what life is like for LGBT individuals residing in a small Pennsylvania town.
Out in the Silence captures the remarkable chain of events that unfold when the announcement of filmmaker Joe Wilson’s wedding to another man ignites a firestorm of controversy in his small Pennsylvania hometown.
Drawn back by a plea for help from the mother of a gay teen being tormented at school, Wilson’s journey dramatically illustrates the universal challenges of being an outsider in a conservative environment and the transformation that is possible when those who have long been constrained by a traditional code of silence summon the courage to break it. [Synopsis courtesy of the film’s own website]
Out in the Silence
Directors: Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer
Producers: Joe Wilson, Dean Hamer
Editor: Nels Bangerter
Composer: Joel Douek
Directors Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer on how professional and personal partnership lead them to making “Out of Silence”…
We’re partners both in life and filmmaking. What drew us to documentaries was our shared passion for social justice, and the power of film to tell real life stories that can inspire and move people to action. When we first met at a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force event 14 years ago, Joe was involved in human rights work with a nonprofit organization, and Dean was a molecular biologist and author of several popular science books. Little did we know that our encounter that evening would lead first to marriage, and then to making a film together.
After we tied the knot in Canada in 2004, we wanted to let our old friends and schoolmates know, so we each put an announcement in our hometown newspaper. For Dean that was the New York Times, where it received many friendly responses. For Joe it was The Derrick of Oil City – a small, conservative town in western Pennsylvania – where it ignited a firestorm of controversy. For weeks we followed the debate from afar by reading the letters to the editor in the paper, which included remarks like “It would be better if you had never been born.”
Then one day we received a long handwritten letter from Kathy Springer, the mother of a gay teen, CJ, who was being tormented at school. She wrote Joe because he was the only openly gay person she’d ever heard of in her town and she didn’t know where else to turn. That’s when we knew we had to go back to Oil City and document what life was like for gay and lesbian folks there.
Wilson and Hamer on the tough challenges they faced in bringing their doc to the screen…
One of the biggest challenges was to paint a fair and balanced picture of Oil City while still maintaining our own point of view. When the person you’re filming says right to your face that “You can’t get married, the plumbing is all wrong,” it’s a bit difficult to keep your cool. What kept us on track was meeting a wonderfully humane Evangelical minister, Mark Micklos, who despite his initial condemnation of our marriage helped us to realize that stereotypes can work both ways. Mark has become a close friend, and these days he even attends screenings with us – an incredible turnaround in three years.
The other big challenge, universal to indie filmmakers but especially newcomers such as ourselves, was finding support and resources. We were fortunate that a Pennsylvania PBS station recognized the local importance of the story and helped us out with a starter grant and statewide broadcast. That helped us win an award from the Sundance Documentary Film Program, which was an incredible boost both financially and creatively and gave real weight to the project.
Wilson and Hamer on the remarkable response their film has received thus far…
The film has been very popular with our core audiences of progressive folks, the LGBT community and PBS viewers, and has won rave press reviews and substantial festival recognition including official selection to the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Lincoln Center. But our real hope is to reach new audiences who are “beyond the choir,” especially youth and adults living outside the major urban centers. That’s why we partnered with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network to give away DVD’s to over 200 student groups who screened the film at middle schools and high schools around the country on April 16, the National Day of Silence. We’ve also launched an intensive grassroots outreach effort, beginning in Pennsylvania where we’ve committed to holding events in every one of the state’s 67 counties, some of which have populations less than 10,000.
The response has been remarkable. At a public library screening in the small town town of Kittanning PA, where the librarian received death threats just for holding a “queer event” in a place where there’d never been one, the room was packed and the discussion lasted hours. Despite the efforts of the religious right to portray the homosexual lifestyle as something that’s restricted to big cities, the truth is that there are LGBT people everywhere in America, and they’re eager to connect with one another and their allies. That’s what the “Out in the Silence” Campaign for Fairnesss and Equality in Small Town and Rural America is all about.
Wilson and Hamer on what inspired them while making the film, and on their future projects…
We were certainly moved by “The Times of Harvey Milk,” with his battle cry of “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” and of course all of John Scagliatti’s classical historical documentaries about the birth and growth of the LGBT movement. But our greatest inspiration comes from the characters we met in Oil City – ordinary people like CJ and Kathy who had the courage to break the traditional code of silence and stand up to bigotry and discrimination in their community. We hope they’ll inspire other ordinary folks around the country to take the extraordinary actions we need to bring about justice and equality for all.
Our first priority is to expand the community engagement campaign from Pennsylvania, where it’s already had significant impact, to the national level by reaching out to strategically chosen target areas. Meanwhile, to keep our hand in, we’ve been making a few short films including “Frances and Franke,” about a beguiling pair of developmentally disabled twins reunited after long institutionalization. Frances asked us to make the film after she saw “Out in the Silence” because “I know what it’s like to be discriminated against.” It’s another example of the power of an engaging story to reach even those you might least expect.