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Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977) (review)
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The documentary film Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977) is groundbreaking not for its innovation in style but rather for its somber realism that foregrounds the storytelling process of gay and lesbian individuals at a time when homosexuality was a rarely covered topic in documentaries. Originally conceived as an educational film, Word Is Out recorded gay and lesbian lives in a straightforward and accessible manner. Consisting of talking head interviews that are accompanied by scenes of gay and lesbian activism and the everyday lives of the subjects, Word Is Out consciously avoided explicitly sexual content. The film’s accessibility and its sanitized nonsexual content were criticized by some for promoting an assimilationist position. Others questioned the film’s claim to realism given the rigorous selection process for the film’s interview subjects. Nonetheless, Word Is Out magnificently succeeds in representing a diversity of voices in the gay and lesbian community in the United States.

Word Is Out was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation. Word Is Out is one of the first restorations to come from the Outfest project, a LGBT media preservation program funded by the David Bohnett Foundation, which are further detailed in the extras Outfest PSA and Executive Producer David Bohnett. The original concept for the film was the result of a collective of six filmmakers known as the Mariposa Film Group, which included documentary filmmaker Peter Adair, his sister Nancy, Veronica Selver, Lucy Massie Phenix, Andrew Brown, and Robert Epstein. They decided to share credit for the film in an attempt to rid the group of any hierarchical structure. The six filmmakers conducted more than two hundred video preinterviews, which they evaluated and pared down to twenty-six interview subjects demonstrating a balance of social, sexual, racial, and geographical diversity.

The talking head interviews compose the majority of the film, with excerpts edited together around specific topics that include childhood sexuality, experiences of discrimination, societal pressures, family life, and coming out. The film is divided into three sections: “The Early Years,” “Growing Up,” and “From Now On.” These divisions give the film a loosely chronological structure by which it follows individual narratives of personal maturation; the growth of gay, lesbian, and women’s organizations; and the development of a sense of community. The film’s structure is one of the devices that gives Word Is Out a sense of optimism and suggests progress from the oppressive 1950s and 1960s to a growing gay and lesbian consciousness in the 1970s. “The Early Years” focuses on the older members of the group, such as Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay, relating how they came to understand their sexuality as well as their thoughts on their early relationships. This section features perhaps the most painful stories in the entire film, such as Rick Stokes’s account of his extramarital affair with his first love, Joe, which resulted in Stokes’s hospitalization after his family found out about their relationship. Parallel editing juxtaposes the oppression experienced by the film’s subjects via hospitalization in mental institutions or harassment by vice squads with the military inquisitions during the McCarthy era. Although the section ends optimistically with George Mendenhall’s emotionally charged recollection of José Sarria’s performances in a gay bar and the sense of solidarity that they created, the primary focus of the section is on establishing a shared sense of oppression and isolation.

The second section, “Growing Up,” includes interviews with the younger subjects, which, despite resembling the stories in the first section somewhat, interrogate their sense of discomfort toward gender norms and straight society. A sense of progress and improvement of the situations of the subjects underscores the latter half of this section, showcasing both older and younger interviewees who open up about their developing romantic or political relationships, which are at times closely intertwined. For instance, Cynthia Gair relates a story of her first experience at a radical feminist meeting, which is followed by her recounting of a romantic encounter that she had at a women’s gathering. This juxtaposition of the political with the romantic succeeds in reinforcing the sense that conditions for...

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