Films A to Z
Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives
- 132 min.
- Year of Production:
- Production Company:
- Mariposa Film Group
- Berlinale Section:
- Berlinale Category:
- Documentary Film
WORD IS OUT: STORIES OF SOME OF OUR LIVES (1978) presents a mosaic of interviews with 26 gay and lesbian individuals who describe their experiences of coming out, falling in and out of love, and struggling against prejudice and discriminatory laws. These interviewees – who range in age from 18 to 77, and in type from bee-hived housewife to sultry drag queen. Together they deliver their testimony with extraordinary intelligence, grace, honesty, and conviction, creating a work of oral history that is profoundly engaging and deeply moving. In 1978, WORD IS OUT startled audiences across the country when it appeared in movie theaters and later, television. The first feature-length documentary about lesbian and gay identity made by gay filmmakers, the film had a huge impact and became an icon of the emerging gay rights movement of the 1970s.
In December 1977, a year before Harvey Milk was shot dead, WORD IS OUT had its premiere in San Francisco. In the film 26 gay men and lesbians recount their experiences of discrimination and social oppression, but also of the freedom and the ability to love. This was the first film that challenged the prevailing image of homosexuality with an image from the gay perspective, and it became an important milestone (not only) for gay audiences. The mosaic-like montage uses the individual stories to create a polyphonic collective "we" at a time when the identity politics movements of the past century were still in their infancy. The idea of a collective also played an important role in the creation of the film. Six filmmakers, some of whom lacked any experience in filmmaking, formed a collective calling itself the Mariposa Film Group and conducted interviews over a period of five years, which were then assessed, discussed and put together in a painstaking process. The frankness, humor and courage of the protagonists, as well as the social and aesthetic commitment of the filmmakers, make WORD IS OUT a moving film that is still well worth watching over 30 years after it was first released.
The beginnings of the lesbian and gay rights movement
In 1977, WORD IS OUT startled audiences across the country when it appeared in movie theaters and later, on television. The first feature-length documentary about lesbian and gay identity made by gay filmmakers, the film had a huge impact and became an icon of the emerging gay rights movement of the 1970s. When audiences saw the film, thousands wrote to the Mariposa Film Group’s post office box number listed at the end credits to express how much the film meant to them – and many of them, on how viewing the film saved their lives. Newly preserved to 35mm by the UCLA Film & Television Archives and the Outfest Legacy Project, WORD IS OUT is now available for a whole new generation. Ripe for rediscovery, it is at once a record of past struggles, an occasion for reflecting on how far we still have to go, and a masterpiece of the documentary form.
Word is Out presents a mosaic of interviews with 26 gay and lesbian individuals who describe their experiences coming out, falling in and out of love, and struggling against prejudice and discriminatory laws. These interviewees – who range in age from 18 to 77, and in type from bee-hived housewife to sultry drag queen – include poet Elsa Gidlow, political activist Sally Gearhart, inventor John Burnside, civil rights leader Harry Hay, and avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky. But all deliver their testimony with extraordinary intelligence, grace, honesty, and conviction, creating a work of oral history that is profoundly engaging and deeply moving. Thirty years later, it is a record of the gay and lesbian experience in America near the start of the movement. WORD IS OUT is a precious and moving document whose relevance is almost entirely undimmed today.
Thanks to the then-budding talent of an incredible roster of documentary filmmakers that made up Mariposa, the film is an important demonstration of the enormous power that can be achieved through unadorned, unadulterated personal testimony. It is truth told with humor, courage and tears.
The only way is to tell stories
I’ll talk a little about the work. Back in the 1970s when the modern gay movement was just beginning, our biggest problem was invisibility. Who homosexuals were was largely determined by straight people. It was bad enough that the public image of gay men and lesbians was defined largely by stereotypes – after all, I want other people to have an accurate picture of who I am. But these stereotypes created by outsiders largely defined our perceptions of who we thought we were. What a state of affairs. One’s reference for “What was Gay?” was a few nasty images, and, if you were lucky, your immediate circle of queer friends.
WORD IS OUT, finished in 1977, was on its surface a very simple idea answering the simple question, “Who Are We?” For the film, I, and the five other principal people I worked with, spent a year doing research interviews on videotape of 250 lesbians and gay men all across the country. In the end, 26 were chosen to tell their stories in the film. WORD IS OUT played innumerable times in theaters and on television all over the world. And I can say, with little modesty, it had a tremendous effect on people’s lives. We got literally a thousand letters of thanks. To this day, when gay people (they tend to be older gay people these days), learn that I had something to do with the movie, they often launch into stories of how it changed their lives.
Needless to say this is gratifying, and ample proof to me that art can make a real difference. But is WORD IS OUT art or simply compassionate journalism, agitprop theatre? I think it’s art – certainly the aesthetic form that it took was radical for the time and has since been copied ad infinitum by other films.
The aesthetics grew out of the needs of the content, which is the way art ought to be – at least in film. We wanted to create a kind of collective portrait – an absurd idea – trying to describe a whole people in a single film. But we had no choice, as our intended audience was so starved for accurate images that we had to at least attempt to depict the variety we felt was out there. So we had to portray a lot of people. The second requisite was that the portraits had to be inherently dramatic. By this I mean they had to be stories. No one will watch more than a couple minutes of “This is Mary at her job. This is Mary and her Horse. This is Mary’s Lover. This is Mary’s photo album of growing up. This is Mary talking to her Lesbian friends…” You get the picture, B-O-R-I-N-G. Especially so, if we then launch into “This is Juan. This is Juan growing up. This is Juan’s apartment, etc.”
The only way around this problem is stories. “This is Mary growing up. This is a picture of Mary at her three-year-old birthday party refusing to wear her pink frilly dress. This is Mary running away from home at 14 with her special friend Henrietta who she calls Hank...” So we told stories, 26 of them, as a matter of fact.
The next problem which faced us was that no matter how compelling they might be, you can’t tell more than a few stories serially, one after another. You might get away with “This is Mary’s Story,” “This is Juan’s Story,” “This is Louise’s Story,” but that’s about it. All right, maybe you could add Bob, but any more simply do not work. So somehow we had to find a way to tell these separate stories simultaneously, in parallel. It took three of us two years to figure out how. Either we were very dumb or the problem was very complex. We actually cut 26 little movies to make sure each individual story worked, was consistent to itself, was dramatic and true to its character. Then we interweaved them.
This is Mary in the third grade picking a fight with the boys. This is Juan entering seminary. Back to Mary being punished for beating up the boys. This is Juan falling in love with a priest. Back to Mary joining the WACS. Back to Juan running away to San Francisco with the priest. You get the picture, and this is just two stories. We did a lot more at once. This technique is used a lot now, the simultaneous telling of multiple stories but I think we originated it.
Suffice it to say that the whole movie worked as a piece of art and a piece of social activism. And to point out the obvious, it would not have worked as the latter, no matter how good our intentions, if we did not find a way of making it compelling, of making it art.
Peter Adair, Artlink, October 2, 1993
History of an unintentional collective
WORD IS OUT was made by six people: Peter Adair, Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown, Lucy Massie Phenix, Nancy Adair and myself. Our collective name, which we gave ourselves mostly for the purpose of credits, was Mariposa Film Group. First of all we always avoided the word “collective” whenever we could because we were never sure whether we really were one or not. But now that it is all over, we agree that we did indeed work collectively. I will attempt to show through my un-collective perspective how and why this group evolved and some of the reasons why I think it worked.
We each came to the project from diverse backgrounds in terms of film experience and how we identified ourselves as gay. Peter came up with the idea for the film, recognized the need for it, and designed the basic structure for the movie. Peter had 12 years’ experience as an independent filmmaker and producer for public television.
Nancy, who had no prior film experience (at the time she was driving a cab), joined her brother by initially doing videotape interviews with lesbians for a video compilation to be used for fundraising. At this time their relationship, loosely defined, was that of producer/director and associate producer, respectively. When an initial bulk of money was raised ($30,000 in the form of investments from people who believed in the idea and wanted to see the film get made) it neared time to begin production. Peter and Nancy asked Peter’s longtime friend Veronica to work with them. They felt Veronica, who had just finished working as an editor on ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, had a political and filmic approach that would both complement and contrast with theirs.
It was also decided to hire a production assistant. Andrew and I were both applicants for this job, which was advertised in a local magazine. The ad read: “We are looking for a non-sexist person to work on a documentary film on gay life. No experience necessary, just insane dedication and a cooperative spirit.”
Neither of us had any prior film background to speak of. Andrew had worked as a schoolteacher and I was a recent college dropout from the east coast, beginning to take classes at San Francisco State and living on unemployment. It was decided that Andrew would be the paid assistant, and I was offered the opportunity to join the project as a volunteer.
During the first phase of production, the crew roles that were assigned remained consistent and unchanging except perhaps for Veronica’s. Peter and Nancy traded off as interviewer/camera operator with Veronica, who was the soundperson, eventually becoming more actively involved as an interviewer. Andrew was the assistant. Peter, because of his experience, always supervised the technical aspects, including the lighting of every shot. I participated in the last two shoots as a gopher and began working in the editing room syncing up footage.
From the very beginning, there was never any authoritarian edge or arbitrariness to how we were working with each other, largely because of Peter’s general attitude of openness and his ability to include people in a process. Also I feel because we were all gay and working on a project so close to ourselves, we shared a certain commonality from the beginning, which made it difficult to assume a traditional working structure.
After the initial eight people were filmed, we screened the rushes together (some 15 to 20 hours). When we viewed the footage, each person had a written transcript of each interview, and we made notations of our responses in the margins. There wasn’t much discussion as a group yet – other than to share excitement over the obvious “moments.” But we each began forming our own relationship to the material and our own perceptions. The fact that we were using this transcript process was an acknowledgement that we each had something to say about the material. We knew that it was important to have more than just one person’s view. A group dynamic was being developed, not in just a working relationship with each other but toward the material itself.
Based on our input, Peter cut together a three-hour assembly, which we screened to predominantly gay audiences for feedback and financing, not necessarily in that order.
We realized then that people were somehow seeing the film as a definitive statement on gay life. So we felt it needed to be broadened beyond the scope of the eight people we had already filmed.
The community screenings produced a flow of response. Involving an audience in this way critically shaped WORD IS OUT and the film was rapidly growing bigger in every way than Peter originally conceived. Audience involvement also influenced the way in which we would work in the future. Individually we saw different needs for the expanded film (as did the audiences). It became evident that a group, working as a unit with several different points of view, would be more likely to produce a “broader look at gay life” than several people working together under a more hierarchical set-up functioning to bring the “director’s singular vision” to life. And the thrust, so necessary in forming such an alliance, was forming as a result of our work. (…)
By consensus we chose 16 more people to be in the film and decided who would interview each of them. When we then started production, the person doing the interview became more or less the director of that shoot and (with some basic guidelines) was responsible for the content of the interview. We usually worked in crews of threes and on different shoots assumed different roles. Peter taught those of us who had little or no technical experience the basic use of the equipment. Most of the shooting situations were simple enough to make this possible. (…)
When it came time to edit the film we had to figure out new relations and roles all over again. This was not just because we had never edited a film together. The very nature of the editing process – as opposed to shooting – does not lend itself easily to group work. The primary responsibility for the dayto-day editing of the film was eventually taken by Veronica, Lucy and Peter (who simultaneously had the responsibilities of producing), and to a lesser degree myself. Nancy and Andrew, by their own choice, had little to do with the daily functions of editing. Andrew transferred sound and produced the men’s music shoot. Nancy worked on the book (co-edited with her mother Casey). We had screenings for the whole group so that Andrew and Nancy could criticize various proposed cuts and suggest any changes which either of them felt important, so everyone was involved in critical decisions.
Towards the final editing stages I was beginning to feel trapped in the editing assistant role. I can remember often working over the editing bench while Lucy and Veronica were having heated creative discussions over at the flatbed on a section one of them was cutting. I would be envious and resentful that I was not included in the dialogue. In my more rational moments I realized that things shouldn’t be any other way because I did not yet have the experience. Someone had to do the assistant work and it was most logically me. And if I really wanted to be an editor when I grew up, I had to pay my dues. This may not have been a problem in a regular job situation where I had no choice but to accept the hierarchical structure, but in this situation it was difficult. Perhaps it is a necessary contradiction in a collective situation – being absolutely equal in some situations (i.e., shooting and critiquing the rough cuts) and unequal in others (they were at the flatbed and I was at the rewinds).
The core group
At one point it seemed evident to me that the film needed a fourth editor. I felt that I was ready to work on some smaller scenes. (Also, Amanda Hemming, who had been working as a volunteer, took over the responsibilities of the assistant.) All of this says three things: (1) I learned to be more pushy, or to put it in current terms, assert my needs. I think this is largely because 2) there was an openness in the group which enabled us to make demands; we were able to give and take. And 3) the project itself was expansive enough to allow for and sometimes require this kind of personal growth.
We allowed a lot of time for “process.” (…)
While we were working on the film, we each got paid $100 a week, except for the office manager, who got $25 a week extra for doing the dirtiest work. Also, early in postproduction it was decided that the “office manager” and anyone else who worked on the project from that point on would not be considered as part of the “core group.” Although Kathy Glazer as office manager, Amanda Hawing as assistant editor, and Tracy Gary as fundraiser were very much a part of the making of WORD IS OUT, we made a conscious distinction at that point as to who made up the core collective, based on the history we already had with the project. (…)
Although we were consciously working collectively, we all sometimes had ambivalent feelings about the process. This ambivalence was related to the fact that we couldn’t come to a practical definition of the collective process. We would never come to an ultimate definition or conclusion of how we were working together because it continually changed.
We tried to set up a structure that encouraged everyone to give their maximum. For this to be possible, our process at all critical points allowed for equal input. We were able to work as a group because we shared a similar vision of the film, the same vision that attracted each of us to the project. Only at the very lowest points of working together when under extreme tension did we ever see in each other critical differences in perspective, which for the time being overshadowed our singular goal. We were able to fight and hate and struggle and love, all the while growing and coming out stronger through the process. And we made a movie.
After the film was finished, and realizing that we needed a name, we decided to call ourselves Mariposa Film Group. Asked in a press interview, after the film was released, “When did you become a collective?” the response was, “In retrospect.”
Rob Epstein, June 1979, printed in Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981
BIOGRAFIE Nancy Adair
Nancy Adair was born in 1947 in New Mexico. Soon after the original opening of Word is Out, the book of the same title was released, compiled by Nancy and her mother Casey. Nancy lives in Willits, in Northern California, where she is a yoga teacher and artist.
FILMOGRAFIE Nancy Adair (selection)
1977 Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives
BIOGRAFIE Veronica Selver
Veronica Selver was born on July 23, 1944 in White Plains, N.Y. She is a producer and editor and has worked on numerous documentaries dealing with socio-political themes. In addition to Word is Out (1977), she co-directed You Got to Move (1985) and directed Raising the Roof (2005).
FILMOGRAFIE Veronica Selver (selection)
1985 You Got to Move 1977 Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives
BIOGRAFIE Peter Adair
Peter Adair was born in Los Angeles County on November 22, 1943. Peter Adair always chose the subject matter for his films based on his current passions, and Word Is Out was as much a vital part of his own coming out process as it was an attempt to show gays and lesbians in a very human and non-sensational manner. In 1983 Peter Adair produced Stopping History and in 1984 acted as consultant on The Times of Harvey Milk (dir.: Rob Epstein). Peter Adair died due to AIDS-related complications on June 27, 1996 in San Francisco.
FILMOGRAFIE Peter Adair (selection)
1991 Absolutely Positive 1977 Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives
BIOGRAFIE Rob (Robert) Epstein
Rob Epstein was born on April 6, 1955 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The documentary filmmaker became known to a wider audience with his film The Times of Harvey Milk (1985), which encapsulates a crucial turning point in gay politics. Since collaborating on Word is Out, Epstein has produced and directed numerous non-fiction works for national television. He has taught in the graduate program at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and is currently co-chair of the Media Arts Department at California College of the Arts, where he is a professor
FILMOGRAFIE Rob (Robert) Epstein (selection)
2019 Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (Dokumentation) 2019 State of Pride (Dokumentation) 2018 Endspiel (Kurzdokumentation) 2014 The Oscars (TV Movie Dokumentation) 2013 Linda Lovelace - Pornostar 2010 Howl 2006 Ten Days that unexpectedly Changed America: Gold Rush (TV-Dokumentation) 2002 Crime & Punishment (TV-Serie) 1999 Paragraph 175 1995 The Celluloid Closet 1986 The AIDS Show 1984 The Times of Harvey Milk 1977 Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives
BIOGRAFIE Andrew Brown
Andrew Brown was born on October 12, 1947 in Philadelphia. He moved to San Francisco in 1975, where he met Peter Adair and worked on Word is Out. After that project ended, he studied psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley. He has worked in the mental health sector since the 1980s and is presently running a geriatric mental health program in San Francisco.
FILMOGRAFIE Andrew Brown (selection)
1977 Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives
BIOGRAFIE Lucy Massie Phenix
Lucy Massie Phenix was born on May 22, 1942 in Washington D.C and grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. After earning a BA in philosophy and an MA in teaching, she taught at a community school in New York. It was there she met the members of the Winterfilm Collective, whose documentary film Winter Soldier (Forum 1990) she helped edit. She has gone on to produce and edit numerous non-fiction works, and directed the documentaries You Got to Move (1985), Cancer in Two Voices (1994) and Don’t Know, We’ll See: The Work of Karen Karnes (2008).
FILMOGRAFIE Lucy Massie Phenix (selection)
1985 You Got to Move 1977 Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives