The film Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives was a radical statement when it hit the screens in 1978.
It was made by the Mariposa Film Group, "mariposa" being the Spanish word for "butterfly," and a word sometimes used to describe gays and lesbians in Spanish-speaking countries. It was also the name of the street where the group put the film together in San Francisco.
Word Is Out was the first feature-length documentary about lesbian and gay identity made by gay filmmakers. It is widely known in film schools, but hasn’t really been seen publicly since it made such a splash in the late 70s. Now it is back on the big screen, and also as a newly updated DVD.
The Legacy Project for GLBT Film Preservation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive took the revival of the film on as a project. The 30th anniversary DVD has been mastered from the restored 35mm theatrical version of the film and was supervised by Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Mariposa Film Group. The Word Is Out DVD came out in June 2010, with a short follow-up documentary about the film’s subjects, which tells us that about half of the men in the film are dead. It also tells us that one of the women is now straight.
Peter Adair launched the Word Is Out project in the 70s, along with his sister Nancy Adair, Rob Epstein, Veronica Selver, Lucy Massie Phenix and Andrew Brown. Epstein, winner of two Oscars, was just out of high school when he worked on Word Is Out and went on to direct The Celluloid Closet and The Times of Harvey Milk. They all shared the roles of director, editor, producer and cinematographer, which explains the changing textures of the film. Adair is one of the men who worked on the project who died of AIDS, in 1996, and didn’t see the restoration and remastering of the film, which was shown in 2008 at gala festival events in L.A. and S.F., and is being shown in Montreal at the end of the month.
It is a deceptively simple film: 26 people from all over the U.S., between the ages of 18 and 79, tell their own stories to the camera, sitting in their own living rooms and kitchens. Sometimes you can see the interviewer, and sometimes you cannot. They look out at us with complete candour as friends and confidants. They just tell us about themselves and what it was like to come out as a lesbian or gay person. It is riveting material. In fact, I wonder if Jean Paul Gaultier has seen this film. Gaultier is openly gay and lost his partner to AIDS. His work on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts echoes some of the stories told in Word Is Out. In the Gaultier show, images of real people are projected onto the faces of mannequins, expressive and very real faces on lifeless bodies, talking about their lives as gay men. It is the most compelling aspect of the exhibition.
Some of the stories in Word Is Out are so upsetting that you almost want to look away. It is hard to imagine the world as it was then, in the days when people who were gay or lesbian were hospitalized and subjected to what can only be described as torture in mental hospitals, as a blond woman named Whitey tells us in a simple and pained way. She is one of two people interviewed who were basically imprisoned and given electroshock therapy. One woman lost custody of her children. One was drummed out of the U.S. military. One of the subjects is a businessman, interviewed in his office behind his desk, who finds the flamboyance of the gay pride movement over the top.
One of the older women interviewed is Elsa Gidlow, born in England and raised in Montreal, who published the first volume of openly lesbian love poetry in the United States: On a Grey Thread.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times said Word Is Out is "graceful, funny and often very moving… The people have in common a kind of confidence and certainty." Word Is Out is a post-Stonewall manifesto. It is still a radical statement.
It is fitting that the run of Word Is Out at Cinéma du Parc starts right after Divers/Cité ends – an event concentrated on community development and a full-fledged arts and music festival that showcases a huge variety of music, along with drag queen performances and an outdoor cinema. The 19th edition includes more than 47 hours of free outdoor performances.
It’s like that old 60s tune said: "Go where you want to go, do what you want to do."
Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives
At Cinéma du Parc
July 31 to August 5