"Were you always...gay?" an interviewer behind the camera asks a Hispanic woman as the film opens. The camera's subject, Nadine Armijo of Pasadena, is simultaneously posed on her bed and avoiding the gaze of the camera pointed at her. She hesitates, then affirm this. Nadine's reserve is not unique among the 26 voices interviewed in Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977), re-released at Anthology Film Archives this week. The film, directed and produced by Mariposa Film Group, recorded openly gay men and women from around the country as they relayed their pasts and sought to define their role in a society that had long excluded them. Word is Out would set a precedent in gay and lesbian filmography for candidly documenting the gay experience in the Twentieth Century.
Mariposa Film Group, a collective of six filmmakers including siblings Peter and Nancy Adair and Rob Epstein (who would go on to direct the Peabody-Award-winning The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, 1984) compiled the film entirely from firsthand interviews. The interviewees are most often filmed alone in their homes; sometimes they speak with their partners as they describe how they met. The oldest couple are in their seventies; both have families from earlier straight relationships. Estranged partners are an unspoken counter-narrative to many of these accounts, as several of the men and women featured had had marital partners at some point in their lives. Rick Stokes, a middle-aged, soft-spoken Southern man, had been prescribed shock therapy to fix his disorder and his marriage. Pam Jackson describes the state's intervention in taking custody of her children after she and her partner decided to raise their families together.
Most of the subjects interviewed in Word Is Out express reservations about how they will be portrayed, fearing a flattening of their accounts into stereotypes. Others worry about how the film will be received by family and acquaintances with whom they have not spoken of their sexual orientation. As each speaks, the camera zooms forward until his or her face eclipses the edges of the film. This tactic, which feels uncomfortably direct to a contemporary viewer, simultaneously evinces the extent to which we have normalized a culture of unilateral surveillance since this film was made, and draws attention to a moment in which the camera's gaze was not ubiquitous but rather contained powerful implications for who might be considered a legitimate subject, and whose story warranted attention.
At the time of the film's release critic Fran Taylor, a writer for women's newsjournal Off Our Backs, took issue with Mariposa's non-confrontational stance. Director Peter Adair was clear in his desire to avoid the appearance of a particular political agenda. "The film would never take an overt, political, rhetorical stand," he said in an interview in the Advocate in 1978. But while some advocacy groups found the film lacking in critical content, other critics both within and outside the gay community praised Mariposa's privileging of individual narratives rather than an overarching political theme. This stance was in keeping with that of the film's subjects. As poet and interviewee Elsa Gidlow had insisted near the film's beginning, attempts to position hers and others' stories in support of an outside thematic would do little credit to the stories themselves. What drives Word Is Out is its subjects' sincerity and conviction, qualities the film itself shares.
IMAGES COURTESY ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES