October is observed as LGBTQ History month across the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Greenland, Hungary, and the city of Berlin. But that shouldn’t stop people of different nationalities or sexualities from celebrating it, because at the end of the day, everything condenses into love, a feeling that’s truly universal in every sense. This is precisely the objective of this piece, to summarize how the films in discussion treat sexual orientation as a differentiating factor, transcending constraints imposed by humans.
Over the years, several documentaries, ranging from Arthur J. Bressan Jr’s Gay USA (1978) to The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) by David France, have conjured the anger of the unheard voices in a regressive world. Similarly, narrative films ranging from Desert Hearts (1985) by Donna Deitch to the recent Moonlight (2016) by Barry Jenkins are equally important.
Moreover, Fire (1996) by Deepa Mehta, Aligarh (2016) by Hansal Mehta and My Brother Nikhil (2005) by Onir have tried to initiate this much-needed conversation through cinema in India. While the crowd-pleasing nature and lack of complexity of Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhaan have left viewers polarised, it is indeed a welcome change, bringing the dialogue to the mainstream.
However, documentaries always have an edge over narrative films, because they are unconditional, unfiltered, unreserved, and most importantly unequivocally real. Whether they give voice to hate, anger, or love, the impact squares when we know that people and stories in front of our eyes are real. On these lines, two recent Netflix documentaries, Circus of Books and A Secret Love, tell different stories concerning a singular theme, simultaneously echoing the changing perception towards homosexuality over decades. Both films use different elements to gauge the change in the world’s percipience pertaining to homosexuality and ultimately prove that love transcends sexuality.
In Circus of Books, the eponymous gay book- and pornography store is a symbol of sexuality to many in the neighborhood, while also outlining the various sociopolitical trends and tensions – such as laws against homosexuality – that existed in the US in the ’70s.
Filmmaker Rachel Mason sheds light on the deeply personal story of her parents – Karen and Barry Mason – in their own words, who ran the store for decades. The store was equivalent to a social media application, where gay men found their friends, lovers, and spouses, thereby making it more than a store. Rachel’s parents view it solely as a source of financial income, neither advocating nor condemning homosexuality. They are neutral, not apathetic.
On a macro level, the film captures how social factors restrict the smooth functioning of the store, factors such as rising political tensions, and the emergence of the internet, a gamechanger to the consumption of pornography. The documentary is about the store as much as it is about the people associated with it – the customers, adult filmmakers, porn stars, and people who hold the store in a remarkable place in their lives. However, the biggest achievement of the film is the way it beautifully captures the evolving thought process of the filmmaker’s mother, Karen, when she learns that her son Josh is gay. Karen, because of her conservative upbringing, initially struggles with it, before learning to accept to her son with warmth and love.
She emerges indifferent to his sexuality, and so does his father, Barry. Barry goes on to say that the fact that his son had to hide his sexual identity from them surprised him since it would have made no difference. Although the word apathy is often negatively used, the film shows that indifference to sexuality – or any aspect that identifies humans – is the first and most important step towards an empathetic tomorrow.
By the same token, a tiny yet powerful moment in A Secret Love argues the need for indifference towards sexuality. A Secret Love tells the story of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, who kept their relationship a secret for nearly 7 decades fearing the stringent laws in place against homosexuality. At one point, Terry decides to reveal the relationship to her niece, Diana Bolan. However, the suspicion that the disclosure may lead to disownment holds her back for a very long time. When she finally discloses it, the announcement is greeted with tenderness.
Diana, who shares a motherly bond with Terry responds with “I don’t care,” which is plausibly the most optimistic response the latter can expect. When she says “I don’t care,” she means “It doesn’t matter”. Indifference is acceptance. Akin to the store in Circus of Books, their relationship stands as a testament to the changing times. The very fact that Terry and Pat chose to come out after discreetly maintaining a relationship beginning from the ’40s is proof of their love’s perseverance and a minuscule improvement in society.
Filmmaker Chris Bolan, the son of Diana Bolan, chronicles the incredible life of his great aunt, her lover, and the challenges they had to overcome for 72 years of their relationship, from the male gaze to health ailments. There’s something that filmmakers bring to the table when they tell stories of people they know in and out. They delve much deeper. For instance, Diana recalls the derogatory remarks her father used to pass about her aunt’s sexual orientation. Terry feels that had her mother been alive, she wouldn’t have accepted her choices, owing to the attitude that prevailed back then.
Another important moment that represents the time period in which their love flowered is when the couple finds love letters they wrote to each other back in the day. As Diana wonders why the bottom of every letter is torn, Pat reveals they had to tear the bottom of the paper to ensure other people don’t find who wrote the letters, preventing their relationship from revealed. Moments such as these time and again underline that the burden they carried for years is slowly wearing down. The film’s most joyous and significant moment comes in the form of the couple’s wedding, making their love that persisted for 70 years legal. It is history being written in the present.
It is noteworthy that both Circus of Books and A Secret Love – in addition to their critique on the society as a whole – fundamentally talk about the vitality of love from the closest people one has in life, and affirm that the rest will gradually fall in place.
Bigotry based on one’s sexual orientation is no different from discrimination based on other factors such as religion, colour, authenticity, etc. Circus of Books and A Secret Love together prove that discrimination thrives on difference and vanishes in acceptance. In this case, acceptance emanates from empathy, empathy stems from love, and love trounces hate.
Circus of Books and A Secret Love are streaming on Netflix. Gay USA is streaming on Mubi India as a part of a double-bill of gay filmmaker’s Arthur J. Bressan’s works.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.