Before You Know It: a discussion with filmmaker PJ Raval

MW: I see cross-generational queer dialog as vital but hard to cultivate. Did the project come out that type of conversation within your community or were you responding to its absence?

PJ: The inspiration from the film comes from a few different places.  On a personal level, it came from early conversations with my mother about aging. At the time she was thinking about retirement and was thinking about what it meant to be an older person in her community. We were also talking about the changes that occur – physically emotionally, mentally, and financially—when you transition into a senior identity.

Another moment that inspired the film happened when I was touring with my previous feature documentary Trinidad. At one of the receptions for the screening there happen to be a large group of gay seniors in attendance. It was probably the first time I found myself immersed in an LGBT senior community. Clearly there’s always been LGBT seniors, but this was the first time I recognized them as a visible community. Around the same time, I was volunteering with a queer youth media program where I was teaching filmmaking to kids as young as fourteen. Within a very short period of time I had encountered both ends of the spectrum. It made me wonder if the queer youth and the queer seniors were aware of each other’s existence and more importantly are they are of each other’s experiences?

Having now made this film, I can say most of the seniors I’ve met and spoke with are shocked to see kids have any amount of social support as they figure out their gender and sexual identity. It’s a very different story from their own experience growing up which isn’t to say that there isn’t still progress we have to make for the current queer youth to be supported. But what the seniors made me realize is that they are in a similar process of self-discovery and transformation that the fourteen year olds are. The project wasn’t conceived as a cross-generational dialog but the viewing experience has very much been that type of exchange.

MW: Can you talk about your decision to have an all male cast and what you did or did not discover in terms of lesbian aging?

From a personal filmmaking standpoint I think it’s impossible to be able to represent an entire community and all of it’s diversity in one film. I think that’s what’s so great about a community is that there are so many identities especially within the LGBT community. So when I set out to make this film I didn’t have any specific people in mind I wanted to go out into the community, meet people and see whom I was inspired by. It so happened that it ended up being three male identified subjects and in the end I was actually quite happy about that because I feel like it takes on another level of seeing how different each subject’s past and current identity is based on their background and experience. Each person has their own unique story. However, in the process of making the film I did research several lesbian communities one which considers themselves a radical feminist group that doesn’t allow any males to set foot on their land. Needless to say I couldn’t get access to that type of community but I’m fascinated and definitely want to see a documentary about it – someone should make one for sure!

MW: I want to pick up on what you said about aging as an identity. Identity categories have shifted a lot over the lifetime of the seniors in the film. In many ways, this is a film about gay identity, made by someone who is involved in queer organizing, like the Queer Bomb project you are apart of in Austin.

PJ: Gay identity has become much more mainstream as do many things when they enter more into a general public awareness. It’s not as bound with subcultural identity as it once was. I am not saying it makes it more or less powerful; it’s just something to be aware of when you are working in this cultural landscape. Even within the community there are so many different opinions about identity. But thinking about it in terms of popular representation, people may be more comfortable with LBGT content in film and television but of course that is still limited to certain identities, not much of that content deals with seniors for instance. My film is about giving voice to the senior population and shedding light on who they are. From a cross-generational standpoint, we see a lot of films about queer youth being estranged from their community and working through their identity but never the stories of someone who is 70. What’s funny is both age groups are living through the same experiences – constantly discovering who you are as an ever changing and evolving being and adapting to changing times – it’s the same experience at any age. However, LGBT seniors have seen an enormous amount of social change in their lifetime. Just think about where they came from -Pre-civil right, pre-Stonewall, all the way to DOMA being struck down. They’ve lived through what most people are calling the “gay civil rights” movement whereas the youth generations are being born into current times. Is the youth generation aware of the history?

MW: When making this film were there certain boundaries to communication that came up because of generational differences?

PJ: They were definitely some challenges—a big one was the presence of a camera. Honestly another big one was the concept of documentary filmmaking because documentaries have gained popularity only recently. To be filmed made a lot of the seniors think of forms like nightly news rather than a documentary that is about everyday stories. It was surprising to them that I was interested in “banal” parts of their lives.  If I were making a documentary about queer youth, they are much more likely to be comfortable in front of a camera. They already have media presences as everyday people. Seniors were open to that idea but had to get used it initially.

MW: One of the reasons I wanted to do a Reclaim Generation issue and interrogate the idea of the millennial was because I wanted to address changing economic models. There are a lot of representations of young people struggling with money, having to live at home longer, and trying to grapple with beginning their careers in a horrible economy. I would argue there are far fewer representations of seniors dealing with that. Can you talk about what you learned about economics of LBGT aging?

PJ: I think there is a misconception about retirement, that it’s a time of mobility and freedom. The reality is pensions are limited.  Having made this documentary I see how hard it is to be a senior in this community. Things are so expensive regardless. It is less likely to be an option for this generation of LGBT seniors to have children to take care of them. If a retirement home is an option, there is the question of what it means to be out in that community.

It’s a matter of thinking how to make aging a communal experience. Isolation is a big problem seniors face, which we all face, but is more likely to happen when you retired or lack a close family structure. It is about finding new ways to support each other that don’t necessarily rely on family.

I think the idea of communal living is gaining traction. Communities are springing up where people can share resources. I think these are viable options, but it’s not always feasible. It’s hard to find a large place to live in and share things together in New York City for instance and when you are able to make those kinds of places, the challenge is keeping them affordable. Some of the gay retirement facilities I researched during the process of making the film have gone under since. Rainbow Vista, where Dennis lives, is really interested in making it affordable to live there- not luxury driven. It’s not in the film, but Dennis looked at other places that were out of his budget but Rainbow Vista seemed to fit his needs and retirement situation the best.

I am all for communal living, I would do it now!

MW: Me too! I would love to live on a gay commune.

My next question is about the role of gay marriage in the film. Can you talk about that?

PJ: When I started filming Ty in Harlem one of the first things he said to me was that he never could have predicted the amount of death in his community that happened because of AIDS. It was unimaginable. This got me thinking about all the unpredictable changes that happen over the course of lifetime.

When gay marriage was legalized in New York, it wasn’t something Ty really had fully formulated an opinion on because it wasn’t something he thought he would ever have to wrestle with in his lifetime. When big changes like that happen you have to think through what that means not only for your relationships and your community but also yourself.

It has really made me start to think about what could happen by the time I am 75. Maybe we‘ll be living on Mars, or maybe gay Martians will come to earth!

MW: And save us before we destroy our planet!

Do you have any final thoughts about gay aging, generations, or the film?

PJ: It may sound cliché, but the film is really about living life to its fullest. There is so much fear surrounding aging and there doesn’t have to be. There is a lot of power in youth, but that power doesn’t go away it just shifts into something else over time. It might not be about being the hot twink at the club anymore. As your body ages so does the way you are perceived by the general community and so should your attitude as well. There are still a lot of exciting firsts that happen when you age. There was an interview I did with one senior that I wish I could have included. He said gay seniors are the true radicals of the LBGT community. I think he meant that in a lot of different ways the first wave of gay radicals are now seniors. They continue to push boundaries, which is not the image most people think about when they think about aging. These people still got spark, and it hasn’t diminished. If anything, it’s brighter.

 Check out the kickstarter campaign for Before You Know It here.