Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Daniel G. Karslake | For They Know Not What They Do

accepting our vulnerabilities
by Douglas Messerli

Daniel G. Karslake and Nancy Kennedy (screenwriters) Daniel G. Karslake (director) For They Know Not What They Do / 2020

The evangelical churches throughout the United States, as we have seen previously on film and television, continue to insist that gay marriage and gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, Transgender, or other non-binary figures are a rising threat to Christianity. They continue to spout Bible passages as their proof, quotes that do not at all speak out against the LGBTQ communities of today—or even the gay sex of ancient times.
     Trump, in his attacks on the LGBTQ community, and most recently against transgender individuals, along with his continued statements that the Christian communities are being threatened by the general societal acceptance of these and various other sexualities that lie outside the boxes of male and female embraced by evangelicals, has stirred the ashes of long-smoldering feelings in a community that blames the general populace for own growing isolation.
     Beyond the hostility they embrace in these attacks, what about their own children, raised in such an environment, who happen to suddenly perceive they are gay or transgender?
      Daniel G. Karslake’s new film For They Know Not What They Do explores this very issue. Not all of this excellent film is new to us; we’ve long heard about the level of suicides, and distress for these often-rejected religiously-raised children.
      But Karslake’s film takes us also into new dimensions, showing these families up-close as they come to terms with realities in they never before imagined they might be involved.
      The director begins, in fact, with one of the most painful situations, as the Washington state Robinson family, Linda and Rob, are suddenly sent an e-mail by their son Ryan announcing that he is gay.
       The strange thing here is that Linda’s brother, a policeman, came out to them several years earlier and was accepted into the family as a loving uncle and friend. He surely might have been someone to whom they might have turned for help and advice, and, perhaps even more importantly, as a guide to Ryan. Instead, without telling him why, they cut him off from their family life, fearing that he might be a “bad” influence upon their son.
      Instead, they work hard to make Ryan see the error of his ways within their narrow Christian perspective. Eventually, they even insist, with Ryan’s agreement, that he enter a conversion therapy group named Exodus. That organization’s proselytizing and messages did not work, and Ryan grew into an even greater depression, eventually taking a wide range of drugs while living on the street and for weeks at a time disappearing from their lives.
      Oddly enough, by the end this difficult film, the director of Exodus himself (whom to me seemed like a gay man and at one point he expresses envy for those he is supposedly trying help) abandoned the organization and realized the evils he and such conversion therapy groups had done. I was shocked to hear that in 41 states they are still legal.
      Finally, the Robinsons seek out the uncle to find and help their son. He does so, getting him off drugs. But when the young gay boy makes the mistake of returning to his old friends, he overdoses, and his hospitalized for weeks before, finally, dying. In a sense it is a kind of suicide itself.
      One of the sub-themes of this work is that these evangelical parents are not always homophobic, but are simply unprepared, given the weekly sermons with which they are served up, have no experience to help save their children, no way to even properly empathize with them. Hence the title, quoting Christ at the moment of his death on the cross, forgiving those who have killed him: “For They Know Not What They Do.”
     After their son’s death the Robinsons broke with their former church and joined a church that welcomes and celebrates with figures from the LGBTQ community.
     Other families handle it better, but in the beginning are just as clumsy in their response, and are still filled with shock and fear. Almost by accident all of the individuals Karslake and his co-writer/editor Nancy Kennedy become larger-larger-than-life figures by film’s end, suggesting a broad range of the dangers that LGBTQ people must face.
      Victor Febo was born and raised by his parents in Puerto Rico. When his parents move, with him, to Florida, he finds the new world he has entered alienating and confusing, particularly since he is gay, without having come out to his parents. He is fearful of doing so since, as he puts it his father is terribly macho and his mother was very close to his devout Catholic grandmother. He is fearful that if he told them he would be locked out of their home.

     Accordingly, he returns to Puerto Rico to live with his grandmother, while finding plenty of gay friends with whom he regularly meets while still, to his family, remaining in the closet. When a neighbor who knows of his activities, writes a letter to grandmother, Victor returning to house finds the gate locked. The grandmother shouts out that with his sexual behavior he will never again be permitted into that house.
       He has no choice, obviously but to return to Florida to live with his family. But when he tells them of his sexuality, he is pleasantly surprised that his father amazingly supportive as is his mother Anette.
       Victor graduates, finds a good job, and rents a beautiful apartment which two of his women friends help him decorate, celebrating his good fortune with a group of friends who joined him with music, dance, and good food.
       Finally, as it was getting late, and the noise increasing, he suggested they all go out to a local bar to continue their celebration. The club they attend is Pulse in Orlando on the very night when another kind of hater of gay life enters with a gun, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. Victor found a small closet in which he successfully took cover; yet three of the friends from his apartment party were later found dead. Depressed, and unable to work, and desperate to leave the apartment he had once so loved, he is given support by a local organization and begins to move on with his life.
        After the Pulse murders a local evangelical pastor, Roger Jimenez of the Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento thanked the gunman for making Orlando a safer place, suggesting that these gay, lesbian, and transgender should been murdered. As the reviewer for the Roger Ebert sight added, “His appalling words encapsulate the fear-mongering tactics that have fueled hundreds of anti-LGBT bills introduced by the Trump Administration, along with the rescinding of bathroom bills hinging on the prejudicial belief that anyone who isn’t a heterosexual is a sexual deviant.”
         Born a female, the now renamed youth Elliot Poacher, grew up in the bi-racial society which represented his parents’ marriage. But they too, when he finally opened up to them, at first had difficulties. Yet when they heard why he had chosen to tell them that he had always wanted to be male, an feared for his life when he hear about a trans-sexual girl who committed suicide, they quickly come to perceive that for him there is no turning back, and they gradually come to accept him.
         And, as this film progresses, moreover—and here I should mention that none of these narratives are told as a long singular history but are presented to us in bits and pieces interspersed by the others—Elliot’s mother becomes one of the very strongest voices among the parents, arguing that if we might just accept our own and others’ vulnerabilities, we might grow to love one another in a way that would entirely change the society at large.
        Perhaps the easiest transition was made by a former male who decided to come out as president of her American University class as Sally McBride. Her parents argued that she should, a least, wait until graduation, but she insisted she could longer wait. She won general and admiration from her colleagues, and went on speak before Obama’s Democratic Convention, the first transgender woman to address such a body.
        Yet she too encountered deep sadness. She fell in love with a handsome transgender male who worked with her at the Center for American Progress, and the couple soon begin planning marriage. Yet her lover gradually becames infected in both lungs with a variant cancer, and the upped the date of their marriage, he being married in a wheelchair, while her father proudly walks the bride down the aisle.
       The two are married just a few days before her husband dies.
       I watched this sad and yet, at many moments, utterly exhilarating film, quite by accident, streamed from the Los Angeles Laemmle Theater (which before the COVID crisis we regularly attended) the very day the Supreme Court voted 6-3 that members of the LGBTQ community were covered by the Civil Rights Act.

Los Angeles, June 16, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).

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