Wednesday, May 06, 2009

OUTRAGEThe Evening Class Interview with Kirby Dick

Paraphrasing Ida Corwin (Eve Arden) in Mildred Pierce (1945): "Personally, Veda's convinced me that closeted gay Republicans have the right idea. They eat their young."

Whether alligator, elephant or donkey, elected officials in political office are responsible for and accountable to their constituencies. If the political animal overtakes their behavior, elected officials fall prey to what is most hypocritical in human nature.
Kirby Dick's brave and hard-hitting Outrage explores not only the now-familiar injustice of internalized homophobia but the noted hazards of becoming a political animal consumed by self-aggrandizement and insulatory power. Contrary to dismissive simplifications, Outrage is not a documentary about outing gay politicians; it is a documentary about outing gay politicians who practice hypocrisy in their dealings with the GLBT community. The distinction is important. At The Daily @ IFC, Dave Hudson has gathered the critical response to the film's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, to which I might add Erika Milvy's substantial Advocate interview with Kirby Dick. My own interview with Kirby was cut short when we elected to go off-record to discuss a prospective project of mutual interest. Until then, I managed to ask him a few questions about his latest project.

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Michael Guillén: Outrage speaks so well for itself that I've little to ask you about it and my decision to speak with you today comes more from wanting to personally thank you, face to face, for this important document and to congratulate you on the film's success at Tribeca.

Kirby Dick: Thank you.

Guillén: Outrage is a brave, hard-hitting, investigative piece of journalism. Which leads me to ask: if, as has been frequently cited, journalism is at a moment of crisis—what with all the closures and cutbacks of the Fourth Estate—has good, strong, investigative journalism shifted from newspapers to the documentary format?

Dick: I think that's true.

Guillén: Noting your track record of documentaries that have bravely investigated systemic corruption and malfeasance, I'm wondering if you could speak to the value of the documentary and what—despite the proliferation of vain trust-funded documentaries—is the true purpose of the documentary?

Dick: That's absolutely true. The unfortunate demise of investigative journalism departments in the major newspapers has opened up the field for documentary filmmakers. Unfortunately, documentary filmmakers cannot completely fill that gap, even in the majority. It's still a net loss for journalism. But the one thing documentaries can do—because they're journalism but are also operating in the entertainment world, a more popular medium—they can somehow rattle things in a different way than even a major piece in, say, The New York Times.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated is an example. I don't think it brought the rating system down but it shook it for a while—I may not be done with them yet—but, it had a different kind of impact than all the other critics who over the years have been rightfully critiquing that system. It hit a different audience; an audience that may not have been paying attention to what the critics at newspapers were writing. In many ways this film Outrage was made because the mainstream journalists didn't cover this issue at all. In fact, one of the reasons people are so stunned by the subject matter is that it just hasn't been reported on. That even applies to this film. I know there is one major reviewer who wrote a piece on the film and then had it pulled by his editor. He's outraged. [Laughs.] I don't know, but, I suspect that one of the reasons this doesn't get reported on—and one of the reasons in that particular instance—is because these organizations are part of major corporations whose issues are continually being considered on the hill. They just don't want to ruffle any feathers.

Another journalist who wanted to review Outrage came to me and said, "We can't name the people who you name in your film because we have a policy against outing people." I said, "So does that mean that your policy on outing trumps your policy on reporting?" Then someone else said, "We can't review it because Legal says we can't do it." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, [376 U.S. 254 (1964)] basically protects a journalistic outlet from any kind of liability unless they are willfully misrepresenting the facts. (A) All we have to do is say the film alleges; but (B) it's also very well-sourced, sometimes better-sourced than some of the journalism that's out there. It's interesting to see that the very problem I'm critiquing in the film is now arising around the exhibition of my film.

Guillén: That specific—perhaps even most controversial—critique of the alleged collusion between media and these powerful politicians abusing their privilege stands out for me.

Dick: They're both powerful institutions that are protecting their own interests in this collusion.

Guillén: In assessing the film's critical wake from Tribeca, that specific critique has been the one most frequently levied to fault the film. Your allegation that the media is in collusion with these systemic abuses has drawn the most fire. Your critics find it unsubstantiated, circumstantial and fraught with legal peril. John Anderson in his Variety review stated exactly what I was thinking while watching the film: "one hopes [Outrage] has its own legal team in place." Yet, at the same time, having come from a legal background, I noted that you skillfully allowed others to make these allegations. Was this a conscious legal strategy?

Dick: In many cases these allegations had been made by these people before, whether by Michelangelo Signorile or reported on by Chris Bull in The Advocate. Again, I would have no need to make this documentary if the mainstream press had picked up this journalism; but—when it comes to issues of hypocrisy of closeted politicians—the mainstream press does not think journalists in the gay press are good enough to pick up on it. Why, I don't know; Chris Bull is a completely well-respected journalist. So it was less a legal strategy than just reporting what was already out there but nobody knew about. In some ways, that's more insidious. It's one thing if nobody knew about it. It's another thing if it's out there but the mainstream press doesn't report on it. That's more insidious.

05/11/09 UPDATE: I don't know if Kirby was specifically referencing Nathan Lee when he spoke of a major reviewer whose review was pulled by his editor; but, Lee's story has certainly engendered interest. Eugene Hernandez has the full story at indieWIRE.

05/13/09 UPDATE: As Dave Hudson has mentioned, there are always two sides to every story. Dave points to NPR's anemic rebuttal in the Village Voice. National Public Radio, indeed. After how they treated David D'Arcy over his expose of art stolen by the Nazis, and now their treatment of Nathan Lee, one can't help but wonder whose nation and which public?

Cross-published on

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