Simply calling Arthur Dong a documentary filmmaker doesn't capture the full scope of his talent or integrity. A one-man band who writes, directs, photographs, edits and narrates nonfiction features-including Family Fundamentals, now playing at the Quad Cinema-Dong specializes in telling stories that a lot of viewers (both straight and gay) would rather not hear. He tends to whisper rather than shout-his self-delivered narration is introspective and oddly soothing-and unlike many nonfiction filmmakers with an obvious political agenda, he's a good listener. When he interviews homophobes and other enemies of tolerance, he listens to them politely, treats them with an almost scientific curiosity and makes sure their viewpoints are clearly represented, minus the snotty editorial asides unfortunately common to many documentaries about gay and lesbian life. Like Frederick Wiseman (Domestic Violence), whom he resembles in worldview if not in artistic style, Dong's grand them is the tension between free expression (a value theoretically granted to gays as well as straights) and the constricting forces of majority culture, represented by government, organized religion, the military and the "traditional" family unit.
License to Kill explored not just the phenomenon of gay-bashing, but the psychology of people who do it, placing their acts in historical, cultural and religious context. Coming Out Under Fire, about homosexual soldiers' struggle for acceptance in the military, didn't simply paint defenders of "Don't ask, don't tell" as brainless bigots; he showed them as generally decent people, trapped by government and social mores into implementing a policy that ruined individual lives and satisfied nobody.
Family Fundamentals, a movie about three gay Americans raised in conservative Christian households, feels very much like the third panel in a unified triptych. If anything, its illustration of Dong's central theme is more direct and basic. It shows us that outside of liberal major cities, even the most open and independent homosexual Americans are required to live a kind of double life-to walk on eggshells for fear of offending straights. Insisting that homosexuality is a fact, not a "choice," it shows how even the strongest, most accomplished gays and lesbians are still forced to live each day with varying degrees of disapproval, contempt and outright hostility, not only in the workplace and on the street, but in the one place that is supposed to be a safe haven of acceptance: their parents' house.
Dong's subjects include Susan Jester, a lesbian whose mother and stepfather are involved with a ministry for people whose children have "become homosexual"; Brett Matthews, the openly gay son of a Mormon bishop; and Brian Bennett, a longtime aide and surrogate son to Congressman Bob Dornan (R-CA). All three stories are fascinating, but Bennett's has special resonance because it unfolded on the public stage. He worked for Dornan from 1977-'89, serving as the legislator's chief of staff, campaign manager and legislative aide; he attended Thanksgivings and Christmases at Dornan's home and is featured in many family photographs; he even called Dornan by his paternal nickname, Poppy. The whole time, Bennett, a Catholic raised to believe he was going to burn in hell for being gay, bit his tongue whenever the otherwise personable, charismatic Dornan railed about the homosexual menace. "I was always complicity in silence," Bennett tells Dong. Then Bennett saw gay conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan on an edition of Crossfire, confounding fellow Catholic Pat Buchanan with the factually correct news that the church was fairly tolerant of homosexuals until about several hundred years ago. Realizing that much of his own self-loathing was based on a church "tradition" revised by bigots, Bennett mustered up his courage and told Dornan he was gay, and was disowned. (In remarks before Congress, Dornan tries to discredit the term "homophobia," insisting, "It's not a phobia. It may be an aversion to seeing the collapse of our society.")
While Dornan wouldn't let Dong interview him, and Matthews' parents did just one day of filming before withdrawing from the documentary, the filmmaker treats his gay subjects' parents (and surrogate parent) with complexity and surprising empathy. He acknowledges that they are torn between automatically loving their progeny and loathing them because they're gay. He does not attempt to reconcile contradictions within his gay subjects, either; he lets them express pure (if conflicted) love for the parents who hold them at arm's length, and lets the parents do the same. In a stunning moment, Susan's mother, conservative Christian activist Kathleen Bremner, tells Dong that her daughter was raped by her stepfather, and that the experience probably made her hate men and drove her to lesbianism. In a separate interview, Susan tells Dong that she was less scarred by the molestation than by the fact that her stepdad regularly beat her mom. The information collides with a snippet of Super 8 home-movie footage, played repeatedly by Dong, that shows Susan and her stepfather walking together happily; the revelation of domestic abuse is capped with a freeze-frame of the stepfather, illustrating-in pictures, rather than narration-that in too many families, the facade of happiness is just that.
Dong is part of a modern tradition in nonfiction filmmaking-a documentarian who admits he has an agenda, that he is actively involved in his subjects' lives and that his films are works of personal expression meant to explore his own fascinations. But unlike Nick Broomfield (Biggie & Tupac) and Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine), he doesn't make himself the star of his movies, he doesn't treat any of his subjects with smug superiority and he doesn't turn the idea of subjectivity into a self-aggrandizing clown act. His presence is apparent in every scene (sometimes you hear him offscreen, prodding his subjects with provocative questions), but this technique seems less a piece of marketing shtick, a la Broomfield and Moore, than a caveat (let the viewer beware). It's an honest approach by an honest filmmaker. While Family Fundamentals will have special significance for homosexuals and their parents, its emotional honesty echoes beyond cultural niches. Anyone who's ever decided to be true to himself and pay the price will recognize its honesty, and be moved.