Sunday, 10/18/2009, 8:30 PM
Feature presentation, $10 at AFI Silver
IT BEGINS WITH something so overwhelmingly ordinary and expected most couples wouldn’t give it a second thought. After Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer were married in Canada in 2004, Wilson put an announcement in his hometown newspaper. Public reaction in the town of Oil City, Pa. is overwhelmingly negative. Letters to the editor and local radio airwaves offer scorn instead of hearty congratulations.
But then Wilson receives a letter from Kathy Springer, an Oil City mother whose son C.J. has been enduring physical and emotional abuse at his school because of his sexual orientation.
Wilson, a social activist and filmmaker, and his husband and co-director Hamer travel to Oil City to document the Springer family’s fight to gain fair and equal protection for their son. The result of that journey home again is Out in Silence: A Documentary for Change.
Unfortunately, Wilson and Hamer allow this compelling and important storyline to become lost in a crowd of multiple battles and Wilson’s own impulse to insert himself too deeply into the film. The choices he makes — including filming his own testimony at a school board meeting — causes one to reluctantly question the motivations behind making the documentary and telling C.J.’s story.
Going a good distance to eliminating such cynical suspicion is the obvious enthusiasm Wilson and Hamer have brought to the project. Unfortunately, it’s that exuberant passion that actually works against them. They try to do too much, to capture too much.
In addition to the story of the Springer family, Out in Silence includes the efforts of a lesbian couple to restore an historic building, the anti-gay campaigns of a local American Family Association leader, and the development of an unlikely friendship between Wilson and a fundamentalist pastor.
It could be argued that each of these stories deserves its own documentary treatment. There are so many hands working to make Oil City — a city that evokes small towns across the country — a safe place for everyone.
However, instead of providing a well-defined showcase for these individual efforts, it feels as though Wilson is perhaps trying to come to some kind of broad personal resolution with the Western Pennsylvania town he once called home. It may be that the greatest issue with Out in Silence is not how many stories are being told but, in fact, that the most important one is not.
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