A year after its momentous world premiere at LA Film Festival, Blair Dorosh-Walther’s courageous documentary OUT IN THE NIGHT will kick off the new season of PBS’s landmark independent documentary series POV on June 22, 2015. OUT IN THE NIGHT follows four young African American lesbians who maintain their innocence following a homophobic attack in front of the IFC Theatres in Greenwich Village. The documentary explores intersecting issues of race, gender, and sexuality in relationship to mass media and the criminal justice system.
In September 2014 the BFC/A’s programming assistant Nzingha Kendall interviewed director Blair Dorosh-Walther and producer Giovanna Chesler. Below, highlights from the interview.
Nzingha Kendall: In another interview you underscored the point that OUT IN THE NIGHT is not about race or sexuality, pointing out that “Life is about the intersections of race, sexuality, gender identity, and class.” This clarifying statement you made is really important because people tend to isolate these, as though our experiences can be distilled to one identifying category. I’d like to unpack this issue a bit more with a couple of questions.
Now, since this interview is for the Black Film Center/Archive, I feel compelled to ask a question related to race. What kind of challenges did you have as a white filmmaker portraying a story centered on black people? Did this come into play in terms of building a relationship with the film’s subjects? If so, how? Also, did your own non-conforming gender identity — or any other identifications you claim — impact the process?
Blair Dorosh-Walther: Being a white director was something I was very conscious of from the beginning. I frequently questioned whether or not I should be telling this story, so allow me to tell you why it came about that I made this film. I became involved in the case of the NJ7/NJ4 within the days following the fight. In New York City, the media attention was immediate. There was an online dialogue happening and a community meeting at the LGBT Center in the West Village to discuss the media’s coverage. As a group, we also talked about what you do if you feel threatened but don’t feel safe calling the police and how you can protect yourself. In my immediate reaction to the case of the NJ7/NJ4 I felt outraged and knew that had this happened to me, or a group of white friends, we could have defended ourselves and the outcome would have been incredibly different.
In the following two years, as I continued working as an activist around the case on and off, some folks had talked about making a film about the case, it hadn’t happened. However, at the time I did not want to tell this story. I don’t believe that it is necessarily okay for white directors to tell African American stories. There is a long history of white filmmakers doing this and telling very one-dimensional, often inaccurate stories. I obviously do not think it is always entirely wrong either. But in this case, for me, it came down to talking about this with the women, to talk about my own race, why I wanted to tell this story. We began a process of sort of interviewing each other. I wasn’t interested in telling this story if they didn’t feel completely comfortable with me. At the end of the day, after we built a relationship together, as well as their families, I felt I could do the story justice and represent the women honestly and intimately. This was in 2008 as their appeals were approaching, when much of the media attention had died down. It was then that I realized I was still so outraged and passionate about this story. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Once I decided that I was going to do this documentary, I felt that it was incredibly important to have a strong African American crew in decision-making roles. I started speaking with Daniel Patterson soon after our first shoot. We met as students at NYU and had worked a number of other projects together. Daniel has been the eye of the project for 7 years. The women interviewed him to become comfortable with him and he works incredibly well with the women. Yoruba Richen, one of the producers, has been on the project for the last five years. She was important because she is an African American lesbian and filmmaker. Her role focused primarily on story over the years.
That is how it began. We got to know each other and we talked about me being a white director and kind of kept checking in with each other throughout the process. For me, the greatest challenges came up around our personal class differences. For example, Renata and I have a very close friendship and similar philosophical ideas on our gender identities, and are the same age. But no matter how close we are, there was a striking division between me having an apartment and Renata living in a homeless shelter with her family.
So to directly answer your question, I would not have told this story had the women and their family members not been completely comfortable and trusting of me. I never stopped ‘checking’ and questioning myself during the process, but I did and do feel strongly that I could tell this particular story, this story with Renata, Terrain, Patreese and Venice personally and justly.
NK: Another really important theme in the film for me is the criminalization and imprisonment of black people in the U.S. This really hit home in the recounting of the judge’s statement that Renata “testified falsely,” which compelled one of the lawyers to interject, “Judge, she never testified.” Can you comment on this?
BD-W: Yes! It sounds so outlandish and implausible that a judge could not tell defendants in a case apart, and claim that Renata testified – which she didn’t. Renata is the only one of the women with dreads and had been sitting in front of the judge in his courtroom for six days of trial and at least three days of hearings. We often talk about the disparity of justice for African Americans. Well, this is a crystal clear example of where we can see bias in the courtroom based on a defendant’s race and gender identity. And there are no consequences for this judge. He was not reprimanded for saying this and continued to egregiously sentence her after saying this. By stating that “she testified falsely” when she didn’t even testify, the judge made clear that there is damaging power in a racially biased imagination.
Another example when bias against black defendants became visible in this courtroom was when a potential juror said, in court, that he had become scared of these women because they were a “gang” and took measures to “protect” his family. He wanted to move his family out of town and felt afraid for his safety by being on this jury. The women were charged with gang assault and were not a gang, but the biased fear in the courtroom was palpable. In the eyes of this man, and others, they became a gang simply because of their race, age and masculinity. And because of constant outlandish media attention that labeled them a gang.
NK: You’ve spent almost a decade working on this project, which is your first feature. How did you manage?!
BD-W: I initially knew it was going to be a long, intense process, so I made a conscious decision to move forward when I knew I was ready to completely commit. That being said, I had no idea what really was in store, nor did I ever think it would take me seven years to complete. Financially, it was slow going. A little funding would come in here or there from a film grant, but it was never enough to push forward the way we needed all at once. Sometimes I had a full time job, sometimes I free-lanced, sometimes I worked part-time. For several months, I lived without a home and couch surfed. Whatever it took to continue making progress on the film.
Mentally, telling this story was exhausting for many reasons. It was difficult to raise money for an interview when the person I was going to interview was either in prison or living in a homeless shelter. I’ve worked in social services for much of my life, so to draw a distinct line of being a filmmaker and someone who knew what the women and their families needed, was trying. I say this knowing that the women and their families obviously experienced something much worse, but it is a helpless feeling, leaving a prison after a visit or an interview. I cannot imagine the feeling of leaving a prison when it is your daughter trapped in there.
It was also an artistic challenge to pull together a story of four people, with backstories and family members, which took place over their lifetimes. It required a lot of challenging decisions on what to leave out which took years to figure out in the edit room. It really was the support of ITVS, CPB and Fork Films that allowed the film in all of its parts – the edit, the music, the animation, etc to finally come to a close.
NK: You are a documentary filmmaker yourself, having shot, directed, edited your own films. Being a producer is a completely different beast — or is it?
Giovanna Chesler: It’s very different to work as a producer. I think of it as an advocate / problem solving position that allows the director to make creative decisions. I’ve produced all of my own films, so I’m familiar with the role but when you produce for someone else, you become braver, I believe, and ask for more than you might for your own film.
Blair is very much the head producer of this film, having pulled together the story and the initial funding, which he did for years before I got involved. But once we decided I should come on board, I worked for a year and a half just on raising the finishing funds. It’s a very unsexy position in filmmaking to sit and write grant after grant after grant. Particularly our ITVS grants – where we got to the third round three times in 18 months – which took weeks and weeks of work to pull together. And driving a Kickstarter campaign, and social media tools. Those become parallel projects to a film. But they connect you to the audience just as much.
NK: How did you get involved as a producer for OUT IN THE NIGHT?
GC: I have been focused on fiction film for the past few years. My last film, BYE BI LOVE, was a return to fiction after the all-consuming process of making PERIOD: THE END OF MENSTRUATION which had taken four years with another two years of touring. I had written two feature fiction scripts that I was starting to develop and was at a queer filmmaker’s workshop called Pride of the Ocean, which Blair and Yoruba were also on, when I saw a rough cut of OUT IN THE NIGHT. It was called THE FIRE THIS TIME then. I was immediately furious and moved. I was also angry that I had not heard of this case and these women and knew that this film needed to be finished well. I started working with Blair on the story structure, mapping out transitions and pulling out themes, so that we could see a new way through the story. Then I became a producer. That was three years ago.
NK: This is a question from Brian Graney, the BFC/A’s archivist, who wants to know about your decision to conceal the identity of the harasser — especially since his testimony is in the public record and his name was revealed in the press coverage.
BD-W: There were a few reasons why we did not identify this man. I didn’t want people focusing on him, specifically, as the reason they ended up in prison. I felt that if you could put a face to a name, people would focus on him being the issue, when really the entire criminal legal system is the issue, as well as the media and its deplorable coverage of this case. There are countless catcallers on the street & countless harassers that turn violent. This also reiterates that he doesn’t matter. I wanted to take the power he had and wipe it away.
I was in touch with him on and off throughout the years and he told me he didn’t want to go on camera. I can’t stand what he did, but at the end of the day as Karen Thompson, Patreese’s appellate attorney says in her interview, “he’s a victim of male-supremacy too.” Certainly not as much as the women, but he couldn’t back down when his “manhood” was threatened. So he remains anonymous and blurred in our treatment on film.
NK: The film’s New York premiere was at the IFC theater. Did Renata, Terrain, Venice, and Patreese attend? There’s a reenactment in the film where you revisit the scene of the crime. I imagine that the experience must have been overwhelming for them — and for you and the rest of the crew. What was it like to return to this scene, this time under much happier circumstances?
BD-W: Yes, all four women attended the New York Premiere at the IFC. It was spectacular and powerful. At first we were all extremely nervous that the man who instigated the fight was going to show up. After all he has sued each of the women for what he feels is a “straight-hate crime” in a civil suit. We had extra security there and were as prepared as we could possibly be. The women were all excited, but very nervous. However, he didn’t show and after the screening they had a standing ovation to a sold-out theater. [At that time] It was the only screening all four of them were able to attend together, which made it all that more powerful. In the end, I think it ended up becoming a reclaiming of space. They were able to go back to this place that changed their lives and feel and visualize all this support that they had never seen and share their side of the story with people. After the screening we had a dance party that lasted all night. That is when the movie felt like it was actually done to me.
We did shoot an overnight walk through with Terrain and Renata in front of the IFC. I wouldn’t call it a reenactment, though. My initial idea was to have the women walk through the night of the fight as they remembered it and then have the man involved walk through the way he remembered it. I planned to intercut this with the surveillance video. He obviously decided not to be involved in the project. So with the walk through, I tried to only use what we could prove from the surveillance tape. The rest of what you see – the abstract visuals – are intended to make the audience feel like they are there, or experience what the women might have been experiencing in the heat of a fight. I also wanted to try to depict what Renata might have been going through visually, because she has seizures (a by-product of her PTSD). She had a seizure shortly after the fight happened, and Daniel’s camera movements and created textures reflect some of what Renata felt that night.
NK: OUT IN THE NIGHT is also about families — the ones we’re born into and the ones that we construct ourselves. Can you talk about how the notion of family emerged in the filmmaking process? And I’m thinking both in front of and behind the camera…
BD-W: I’m glad you mention this. I so rarely get a question about chosen and biological families. Initially, I did not intend to have the film be about their families. I thought that I was going to analyze the media (yawn) or “prove” their innocence (which is really near impossible for self-defense cases). As we were shooting, it became clear that the film was about the women and their families. Both in terms of their closeness, but also their personal family histories that informed their decisions and reactions that night.
But I think in queer communities at large, there is a definite sense of “chosen families” because it often takes family members time to come around to the idea of you being gay. It’s also about survival to surround yourself with people who have gone through similar ups and downs. Your queer, chosen family is where you “come out” and then have someone you can relate to as a role model or confidant. I think somewhat similarly African-American extended and chosen families operate for the same. In some ways, it is really a necessity to live – to be able to create your own family.
Off-camera, the women have become my family. I speak to at least one of them or their family members every day. They have become such a part of my life not only because we were filming for so long, but also because I was part of their releases, had done some fundraising for their bails, and organized commissary, etc. We have now seen each other through major ups and downs. I was there when Renata regained custody of TJ. Moments like that weren’t about filming – they were about support and love of friends and family.
NK: Last question: what’s next for OUT IN THE NIGHT?
BD-W: OUT IN THE NIGHT is in the midst of our festival run which is going well. All of our upcoming screenings are on our website and folks can also request and arrange screenings through us. (http://www.outinthenight.com/screenings) We are doing several screenings and talks at universities and with community groups in the US.
I’m very excited about our partnership with the United Nations. At the Los Angeles Film Festival OUT IN THE NIGHT was chosen to launch the UN’s Free and Equal Campaign film initiative. This is one of a handful of films that have been selected to screen in 77 countries as part of the Free and Equal efforts to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide. The film will be programmed at UN sites and screen with local organizations that work on the ground to fight homophobia.