The filmmaker who looked at pederasty without flinching.
In 1994, the first annual New York Underground Film Festival featured Adi Sideman's Chicken Hawk, a documentary about mostly middle-aged boy-lovers and their support group, NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association). The screening was, to say the least, contentious. Altercations between NAMBLA members and its opponents erupted in the audience. Many walked out. Everyone was reeling after viewing the film. It was, indeed, an auspicious beginning for the fest.
The 10th annual Underground Film Festival (opening March 5 at Anthology Film Archives) is screening Chicken Hawk once again. New York Press discussed the film, its history and its continuing impact with Sideman.
First off, I've heard that you're heterosexual. Is this true?
I should assume, then, that you're not attracted to young boys?
No, I'm not.
So what compelled you to make Chicken Hawk?
When I was growing up, we had a pedophile in my neighborhood who molested a lot of kids, including me. Years later, he committed suicide. Afterward, I thought the events were freak things and didn't think about it much at first. Then, during my first year at NYU, I took a class on sexual deviance in society, and the professor devoted 45 minutes to pedophilia and NAMBLA. I remember finding it very strange that NAMBLA could exist freely in the public sphere, and thought it would make a great subject for a documentary. It was only later, when I was eight to nine months into making Chicken Hawk, that I realized this was a very personal project and a way for me to discover who these people really were.
When the film first premiered, the reaction it received from some quarters was pretty hostile. How did you feel about that?
The film was controversial even before there was a rough cut. My NYU mentor George Stony wanted me to "get the point of view of the victims," and put in a title screen condemning pedophilia. But I wanted to film a movie about the perpetrators and let the audience make their own judgment. So when Stony and another professor saw the final cut, they asked that their names be removed from the credits. The premiere was a circus, with demonstrators and pedophiles and Straight Kids USA, a conservative group, all in full force. CNN and the four networks walked into the theater in the middle of the screening, and John Waters shouted, "Get out! It's only a movie!" In fact, there were demonstrators in front of theaters in several cities. Even if they'd never seen it, people wanted the film off the screens. The mere fact that pedophiles were allowed to state their position was enough to drive them mad. But in the end, the demonstrators only managed to call more attention to the movie. Although it was banned in certain states and countries, it played theatrically in 15 cities in the U.S.
In today's conservative climate, it seems to me that many would be even less hospitable to your film's subject matter than they were when the film first came out, particularly considering the recent Catholic priest scandal. Do you agree?
I don't know. But the film is screened in psychology, sociology and criminology departments across the country, and I'm often invited to speak. I met the head pedophile hunter for the FBI, and he had a copy of the movie and had screened it in his department. It's rewarding that people find educational value in my movie. It's not a mass-market flick, certainly, but over the past decade, the media has desensitized the public. It's much harder to shock them now.
Some have said that you were too sympathetic to boy-lovers, that you glorified them and seemed to be advocating pederasty. Any comments?
I believe that I let the men in the film hang themselves. I never looked at them as monsters, though I knew that their passion was destructive and criminal. They really do get a hard-on from little boys, and they believe that if they have these feelings, it can't be bad. Their actions, of course, have tragic effects on the victims, but I wasn't telling the story of the boys. Child molestation has been explored from that angle many times. I was studying the perpetrators, and what I found out was that these guys are tragic figures. I understand people who thought the film favored pedophiles. The topic is so visceral to so many that they feel merely addressing these men as members of society, as human beings, is in itself legitimizing them and thus elevating their status.
There seemed to be an obsessive, self-delusional quality in the men depicted, an inability on their part to face up to some of the negative consequences of their desires and actions.
Right. They choose not to see the long-term negative impact of an adult luring a child into having sex. They want to show society that we are wrong and they are right, that the age-of-consent laws should be changed.
I found Leyland Stevenson, one of the men in the film, particularly repellent. How did you feel when he spoke with obvious joy of taking his young "friend" on a camping trip and having sex with him? That was such gross manipulation on Stevenson's part.
Once we'd filmed that scene, my cameraman and I expected Leland to call and ask us to keep it out of the movie. I don't know what I would have done if he had.
I've heard that members of NAMBLA rehearse with each other the statements they give to the press in order to avoid incriminating themselves. Do you think they might have bamboozled you?
I have no idea if they rehearse in that way or not. I'm sure, though, that not all of my subjects were totally open in front of the camera. But they weren't successful if they did try to manipulate us. I mean, I've never heard anyone come out of Chicken Hawk and say, "Yeah, the government really should lower the age of consent to eight or 12." The men in my film revealed a slice of their tragic lives to me and the audience.
How do you feel now that the film is about to be re-released? Are you ready for another firestorm?
If the movie stirs emotions after 10 years, it's a great thing. The more discussion there is about the subject-and if we can treat the pedophile's fixations instead of demonizing them-the better off our children will be.
at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Ave. (2nd St.),
212-614-2775, 7:30 p.m.
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