Film/DVD: review

Stories From the War on Homosexuality: The Arthur Dong Collection, Vol. 1

Stories from the War on Homosexuality
1994–2002 — Documentaries

Following my collective review of all three documentaries that comprise Stories From the War on Homosexuality, you will find both production information and DVD details for each of the three films.


Arthur DongAcclaimed filmmaker Arthur Dong has created three of the most probing, insightful, and deeply moving documentaries I have seen about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) experience. Now released as a DVD box set through Mr. Dong's DeepFocus Productions, Stories from the War on Homosexuality – on my list of 50 Outstanding GLBT Films – includes Coming Out Under Fire (about GLBTs in the military), Licensed to Kill (anti-gay violence), and Family Fundamentals (GLBTs and religion). Each of these films has won numerous US and international awards; and I highly reucommend all of them. The DVDs also feature over four hours of exceptional supplemental material, and a series of printed guides including essays, reading lists, and more. Because each of these documentaries connects with the others in revealing ways, I am reviewing them as a collection.

What strikes me most about these films is their deep humanity – even when Mr. Dong is interviewing the convicted murderers of gay victims.

Few issues today are more polarizing than GLBT rights; and people on both sides have been known to dehumanize their opponents. These films show us just how personal, and emotional, the political is. Instead of statistics, we meet women and men – from all parts of the country, reflecting all points of view – and come to know them as complex, feeling human beings. These documentaries go a long way to breaking down a wide range of stereotypes.

Taken together, the three films also encompass a larger perspective, as Mr. Dong quietly uses his interviewees to explore the nature of gay life, as well as the lives of people opposed to their fellow GLBT citizens. We come to see the unique nature of this form of prejudice, the only one which is sanctioned not only by government entities and religions but by heads of households, and which can, and does, tear families apart – sometimes for reasons which may astonish you (as they did me).

On a technical, and aesthetic, level, Mr. Dong is a master filmmaker. (He is the winner of a Peabody Award, three Sundance Film Festival awards, an Oscar nomination, five Emmy nominations, and over 100 international awards.) His films show a strong, but unobtrusive, visual sense. And he is a master of cinematic rhythm, both in the editing – whether cutting together rare and fascinating historical footage (Coming Out Under Fire) or the many interviews in all three films – and in the use of music. Composers Mark Adler (Coming Out Under Fire and Family Fundamentals) and Miriam Cutler (Licensed to Kill) have created original scores of haunting beauty and power which work perfectly with the films. Even upon re-viewing, these pictures are remarkably compelling.

Although Mr. Dong is a gay filmmaker, who was himself the victim of a gay-bashing attack twenty years ago, his films present all points of view. He allows the many people he interviews – from GLB veterans of WW II to gay-hating killers to families torn apart over sexual orientation and religion – to reveal not only their points of view but their deeper personal natures.

Mr. Dong has a special gift for creating a safe space in which all of the people he interviews can be open about who they are and what they believe. Sometimes they reveal more than they realize, as we see in all three films through the subtleties of body and eye movements. One of the most fascinating supplemental features is, on Licensed to Kill, an extensive follow-up interview with gay serial killer Jay Johnson conducted after he had seen the finished film. Johnson, who is himself gay, was raised in a devout fundamentalist home where homosexuality was viewed as evil and the Bible as infallible. We see his new self-understanding (he says that he has learned to take the Bible less literally in its condemnation of gay people) mingled with his continuing discomfort – some would say disconnection – with himself. Without any commentary, Mr. Dong has presented a stark, yet profoundly human, portrait of one of homophobia's most terrible victims: The man so divided against himself that he could both seek out other men for sex and then murder them. Yet there is nothing melodramatic, or even especially sinister, about the affable Jay Johnson we meet; he seems just another "nice young man" who once had political aspirations. Mr. Dong lets him present himself in all of his complexity, even as he tacitly compels us viewers to try to unravel the dimensions – the psychological/sociological/moral mystery – of this "nice" self-loathing murderer.

In Family Fundamentals we get know another personable young man, Brett Matthews, but he is the mirror opposite of Jay Johnson, and not just because of his pronounced lack of homicidal tendencies. It is easy for social conservatives to vilify "sodomites" on what they perceive to be biblical grounds, but what do they make of the heartfelt longing of a young man like Brett to be accepted for who he is by his devout family and his faith. The Matthews are Mormon, but this scenario – of religious parents abjuring their gay children – has been repeated in thousands of families of all conservative religions; the other two of the three faiths represented in Family Fundamentals are evangelical Protestant and Catholic. Although Brett's parents ultimately refused to be filmed (they had initially agreed to appear), we come to understand their point of view through their (narrated) comments, and their letters which Brett shares. Most important to them, and other Christian conservatives, is an "eternal reunion in heaven" after death, which is impossible for anyone "sinning" through homosexuality. They would do anything to help Brett find his way back into their faith; they even want him to undergo "reparative therapy," to drive out his same-sex urges, which would utilize drugs and shock treatment.

But unlike a Jay Johnson, who internalized his own – and his religion's – loathing to the point of homicide, Brett holds true to his own nature, despite the pain. In fact, we learn that Brett went on to become an officer in his local chapter of P-FLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), speaking with individuals and groups about his experiences, trying to help them connect with themselves and their gay family members. But as with his presentation of Jay Johnson, Mr. Dong lets Brett reveal himself in surprising emotional fullness. Mr. Dong is not trying to create another handsome but one-dimensional poster boy for gay rights; rather he is allowing a complex human being to reveal more of himself, and the sometimes conflicting layers of his nature, than you will see in most films, either fiction or documentary.

Brett also offers a connection to Coming Out Under Fire. Over a half century after the Department of Defense streamlined its system for throwing out GLB servicemembers, Brett was ousted from the Air Force. Not because he had anything less than a distinguished career, but simply because he was discovered to be gay. His experiences are all too familiar from the nine lesbian and gay veterans whom Mr. Dong profiles in his first GLBT documentary, which brings to life Allan Bérubé's landmark study, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (a book which I highly recommend). We learn how, in earlier decades, gay and lesbian soldiers were court-martialed and many were locked in "queer stockades," or even sent to prison. Brett puts a contemporary face on the mindboggling statistics: Over 100,000 GLB people have been thrown out of the military simply because of their sexual orientation; the General Accounting Office puts the total cost, in lost training, in the many hundreds of millions of dollars. To take one decade, between 1981 and 1990 nearly 17,000 men and women were discharged for being gay, at a cost of $493,195,968 to replace them. One of the strengths of Mr. Dong's filmmaking as that he shows us the flesh and blood people affected by this profoundly unjust – and fiscally absurd – policy. We can also appreciate the incredible resiliency, and creativity, of the many (sometimes hilarious) strategies which gay men and women came up with to do what they wanted to do with all their hearts: Serve the country they love.

Mr. Dong also lets us see the humanity of those who condemn gay people. Not only the anti-gay killers profiled in the unforgettable Licensed to Kill, but the sweet elderly mother/grandmother, Kathleen Bremner, in Family Fundamentals who spends all of her time working to stop gay rights, through her homespun "Spatula Ministries" based in southern California – although her own daughter Susan Jester (who loves her) is a lesbian, and her grandson David Jester (who loves "grandma") is gay. Our understanding of Mrs. Bremner is compounded when we learn about her past: That she was once an aspiring actress, and that her first husband abused her emotionally and physically. Mr. Dong also shows us in depth, both in the documentary and in various additional scenes included with the DVD supplements, how much comfort Mrs. Bremner and her evangelical friends and fellow anti-gay activists derive from their faith. Mr. Dong also reveals – not only from their comments but from Brett's remarks about his family's beliefs – what the mainstream media consistently glosses over in its coverage of the gay "culture wars": That homosexuality, in the view of conservative Christians, is caused by Satanic possession. Even the non-GLBT people who support gay rights are possessed by demons, which prevent them from seeing the sole truth of fundamentalist Christianity. One of the two or three most compelling extra features, on any of the DVDs in the set, is the extensive Additional Scene called "Susan Jester's Friends," in which Susan and several of the people she is close with, both straight and gay, comment on the scenes they have just watched of Mrs. Bremner and her group. You may find the range of their opinions both surprising and illuminating, perhaps on some levels even healing.

Also representative of Mr. Dong's comprehensive, and humane, approach in his films are the printed viewer guides. The one for Family Fundamentals includes Viewing Suggestions and Online Resources (the guides to all three documentaries are excellent, each reflecting the nature of the particular film), which include the full range of organizations both pro-GLBT and anti-. As the guide tellingly suggests: "Intentionally pick out areas that you are unfamiliar with to better understand particular viewpoints.... Dialogue vs. Debate: In dialogue, one listens to the other side in order to understand, to find meaning and perhaps to explore common ground... [It] tends to be open-ended and creates an open-minded attitude: an openness to change." Exactly.

All three of these films are about different aspects of homophobia, the loathing and/or fear of gay people. With its dehumanization and demonization of gay people – not to mention the emotional and physical attacks it causes – homophobia remains one of the most terrible aspects of our society. And with its complex nature it is also one of the least understood. Is it caused primarily by rigid gender roles and male sexual panic? Or is the primary source anti-gay ideology – whether societal and/or religious – that says that GLBT people are socially inferior, morally bad? Are homophobes, whether or not they are literally killers, attacking in gay people something which they fear in themselves, whether it is a repressed desire for same-sex relations or, more generally, "sexual freedom"? About anti-gay violence Arthur Dong asks some questions which, when we as a society are ready to answer them, will help unknot the nature of homophobia: Who issues the "license to kill"? And who are the people who accept that "license"? What are the different forms that "license" takes, besides the most obvious one of physical violence? How is it embedded in our religious traditions, social institutions, family structures, and even ourselves. And why?

Those questions haunt all three films. Although they can not be answered definitively, each of the people we come to know provides a part of the answer. But Mr. Dong allows each of us to draw our own conclusions; to weave together for ourselves the rich counterpoint of ideas, and emotions, from all three films, and compare them to our knowledge of the facts and theories about homophobia.

The strongest people we have come to know through these films – whether a WW II veteran like Sarah Davis or a brave young man from Utah like Brett Matthews – show us that self-knowledge, and acceptance, is possible, although the process will be slow and painful. We see many kinds of prisons in these three films – from "queer stockades" to penitentiaries to families locked shut to their own children. But we also see the rewards which come from self-honesty and acceptance: The ability to love ourselves and others, no matter how different their points of view.

The links below will take you to production information about each of the three films, as well as each DVD's special features:


Coming Out Under FireComing Out Under Fire

Overview & DVD Details

Feature Film: 71 minutes — Bonus material: 90 minutes

Producer/Director: Arthur Dong
Historian: Allan Bérubé
Writers: Allan Bérubé & Arthur Dong
Editor: Veronica Selver
Music: Mark Adler
Director of Photography: Stephen Lighthill
Based on the book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two, by Allan Bérubé

I review this film above as part of the collection Stories from the War on Homosexuality.

Introduction from the DeepFocus Productions Web site: Coming Out Under Fire (1994), based on the book by Allan Bérubé, goes to the WWII origins of today's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy to uncover the history of a military policy that labeled homosexuals as mentally ill and sought their discharge as "sex perverts." Featuring the stories of nine gay and lesbian veterans, Coming Out Under Fire is the winner of a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival, a Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival, a Peabody Award, and numerous other film excellence honors. "Dramatic without being preachy, frank without being exploitative, Coming Out Under Fire is the most dignified sort of ammunition: cautioning the intolerant present with poignant tales from a tainted past." – Matt Roush, USA Today. DVD highlights include: additional interviews with four WWII veterans; gallery of historical WWII documents detailing military efforts to single out homosexuals through "The Drawing A Man Test" and "The Gag Reflex and Fellatio Test"; and extended scenes from the 1993 U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Hearings on gays in the military.

DVD Details – Special Features:

12-page Illustrated Viewer's Guide:

Music selections:



Licensed to KillLicensed to Kill

Overview & DVD Details

Feature Film: 77 minutes — Bonus material: over 60 minutes

Producer, Director, Writer, Editor: Arthur Dong
Associate Producer: Thomas G. Miller
Research Consultant, Advisor: Anjie Rosga
Director of Photography: Robert Shepard
Original Music: Miriam Cutler
Post Production Supervisor: Joe Hoffman
Story Consultant, Advisor: Allan Bérubé
Production Assistant: Grace Lan

I review this film above as part of the collection Stories from the War on Homosexuality.

Introduction from the DeepFocus Productions Web site: Licensed to Kill (1997) is a riveting journey into the minds of seven men whose contempt for homosexuals led them to murder. Inspired by his own experience as a victim of gay-bashing, Arthur Dong gets to know these men and asks them "Why did you do it?" Licensed to Kill was a double winner at the Sundance Film Festival and received 4-star raves from the Boston Globe, the Seattle Times, the Salt Lake Tribune, the New York Daily News, among others. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called the film, "Chilling – a powerful investigation centering on interviews with an unnervingly candid group of convicted murderers of homosexuals." DVD highlights include: a follow-up conversation with serial killer Jay Johnson after he watched himself in Licensed to Kill; additional interviews with three inmates; and an interview with the filmmaker, tracing his journey from gay-bash victim to filmmaker.

DVD Details – Special Features:

Bonus Featurette:

Additional Interviews:

Filmmaker Interview:

Music Selections:

8-page Viewer's Guide:



Family FundamentalsFamily Fundamentals

Overview & DVD Details

Feature Film: 75 minutes — Bonus material: over 80 minutes

Producer, Director, Writer, Editor, Cinematographer: Arthur Dong
Music: Mark Adler
Post Production Supervisor: Joe Hoffman
Online Editor: Christopher Gray

I review this film above as part of the collection Stories from the War on Homosexuality.

Introduction from the DeepFocus Productions Web site: Family Fundamentals (2002), takes viewers into the personal and sometimes very public lives of families where religiously conservative Christian parents actively oppose homosexuality, despite having gay children themselves. Family Fundamentals aired [in 2003] on PBS as part of the POV documentary series after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival and landing on several year-end top-ten lists, including New York Press and Frontiers Magazine. "Heartfelt but evenhanded, Family Fundamentals is a battlefield report from America's disquieting culture war over gay issues" – Josh Friedman, Los Angeles Times. DVD highlights include: extended scenes of a ministry for fundamentalist parents who grapple with having gay children; nine extended and deleted scenes and interviews; an interview with the filmmaker; and an essay and historical timeline tracing the decades long conflict between the religious right and the gay movement.

DVD Details – Special Features:

Additional Scenes:

Interview Extras:

Musical Selections:

12-Page Illustrated Viewers Guide:


Reviewed January 6, 2004


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