PJ Raval discusses Before You Know It, his new documentary on aging in the LGBTQ community
Ty Martin, one of three subjects in the documentary Before You Know It.
In his latest film, Before You Know It, director PJ Raval shares the stories of three older gay men as they navigate the world. A raw and beautiful look into the personal lives of different individuals from across the United States, the documentary explores the senior side of the LGBTQ community, one often left out of the conversation focusing on contemporary queer life and cultural identity.
In advance of the Colorado premiere of Before You Know It as tomorrow night's opening movie of the Cinema Q Film Festival, Raval spoke with Westword about ageism in American society and how he found the subjects for this film.
Westword: What brought you to make this film in the first place?
PJ Raval: I made a film previous to this one called Trinidad, which is about Trinidad, Colorado, the sex-change capital of the world. When I was traveling with that film, I happened to be at a reception that was attended by a large population of retired LGBT seniors. I think it was the first time that I was standing in a space and recognizing the visible community.
I started thinking, why am I not hearing or seeing any of their stories in films? Around the same time, I was volunteering to teach queer youth filmmaking. Some of the kids in there were as young as fourteen. So somewhere in that time period, I started thinking about how there is this large spectrum -- from the 74-year-olds I had just met to these fourteen-year-olds -- that had me thinking about if these groups were informed about each other.
Thinking about how a fourteen year old, right now, is able to -- I mean, not everyone, but -- get some support to come out and explore their sexual identity. There's even things like gay-straight alliances in high schools. I just kept thinking about, well, times were very different when these seniors were fourteen.
When I think about this particular group of seniors, they really have seen a huge amount of change in their lifetime -- beyond just being a gay senior or the idea of them growing up in a time of the civil rights era, all the way to seeing DOMA taken down. I thought it would be a great opportunity to start sharing some of these stories and documenting them.
The kind of films I like to make right now, documentary-wise, are films that are portraits of people. I really like the idea of getting to know someone and experiencing their life in a more intimate view, and how through that process you can actually see the everyday challenges and issues that they face. When I set out to make the film, I knew that I wanted to do a portrait, but I didn't know exactly of whom yet. That's also kind of the fun aspect of making a documentary film -- you never know who you're going to meet or where the film will take a turn.
You documented to three very different gentlemen's stories from different parts of the country. How did you choose your subjects?
First of all, I think it's impossible to represent a whole community -- because a community is so diverse and varied and that's what is amazing about it. When I set out to find the subjects for the film, I was really open to meeting all of these different people and hearing all of these different stories. These three individuals from the film, when I first met them, I immediately gravitated towards them and was interested in their stories for certain reasons. I think it's because all three of them together are really in the throes of being challenged by life in general.
Dennis, for instance, he is so much about self-discovery; for me that was really about breaking down the stereotype of like, when you're in your "golden years" and you're supposed to know everything you need to know. But I like the idea that you're always discovering yourself. You're constantly learning who you are.
That brought me into Ty's story, because not only are you learning about yourself, you're learning about other people and you're also dealing with the times changing. I was so intrigued by Ty's story because when I first met him, he told me he never thought he would witness a large population of his community die off -- because of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
While I was following him, this idea of gay marriage coming up and passing, and him never having thought about it, to me was such a great example of how you change with the times when different opportunities arise. With Ty, it was about partnership, it wasn't just about him, right? It's about his partner.
For me, I do feel like I see more people in their middle stages of life dealing with that -- not as much as a 65-plus-year-old man.
With Robert, living in an area where there isn't a lot of social resources from the government or community in general in terms of LGBT support, he creates his own, which I think is brilliant. He is someone who recognizes that what he's created is so special and unique. There's a fear of not only leaving this world in passing, but also what happens to everything he's created -- the legacy aspects of your life.
That's why, for me, those three stories made sense to put together. One of the things I was really interested in doing with this film was to have it be a meditation of just aging. I think LGBT seniors are the most extreme examples of ageism and discrimination. What I've discovered is that a lot of them are single, a lot of them access social services, and a lot of them are isolated.
I do think what they're experiencing as they are getting older is universal. I just wanted to sit down and look at what were the factors that go into aging -- at least in the United States -- and what are the fears associated with it?
I wanted to widen the view of gay seniors -- when gay culture is represented in the media, for instance, the common view is some white, twenty-year-old gay boy living the life, Sex and the City in San Francisco kind of thing. (Laughs.)
What do you want viewers to take away from this film?
What I want people to take away from this film is that it is true: aging doesn't discriminate. It happens to all of us. I hope that by watching this film, they recognize that these people are, even though they are in the "golden years" of their life, they are still very much discovering who they are. They are still dealing with society at large and the times changing and dealing with discrimination and ideas of self-acceptance and loneliness. Those things apply to everyone.
I do feel like, at least in the United States, a lot of what happens is that people are afraid to think about the aging process and getting older because we do think that things stop. I hope by looking at this film, they realize that things keep going, and there's a real need and importance for us to pay attention to these senior communities. There's a lot that we can learn, but there's a lot of support that they need from us.
I feel like there has been a lot of support for the youth populations and there should be, because they are super-vulnerable. But thinking about the other end of the spectrum, the other vulnerable group is the senior population. It's so interesting -- I just did an interview with Ty, and someone asked, "Don't you think the gay community was so much cooler when it was more underground in the '70s? Don't you miss that?"
Ty was like, I don't know if I find that cooler, because it wasn't safe to walk the streets. So there's nothing really cool about feeling physically vulnerable. I started thinking about it, and I was like, wow. This is part of it, too -- imagine being eighty and walking down the street and getting harassed. Not only are you just vulnerable in general, you're physically vulnerable. I hope that people take away that we should be looking out for our senior community. We should be learning from them and we should be supporting them.
These people are the trailblazers. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't be where we are now as a community.
Before You Know It screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 18 at the Sie FilmCenter, at the opener of the Cinema Q Film Festival. Raval and documentary subjects Dennis Creamer and Ty Martin will be part of a live discussion following the film. For a full line-up of films or to purchase tickets to the Cinema Q Film Festival, visit the Sie FilmCenter's website.
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