What: Film Review
Directed by: P.J. Raval
Produced by: P.J. Raval, Sara Giustini
Featuring: Ty Martin, Dennis Creamer, Robert Mainer
Running Time (in min.): 110 minutes
Rating: Not Yet Rated
Official Selection of the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival
There are certain cracks in the veneer of society through which individuals and groups can slip. To find these people takes both an anthropological and an archaeological eye, in the sense that research into these lives requires as much sensitivity to the subjects as hard digging for information. But with the correct alignment of social perspective, finance, interest, and personal connections, those cracks can be filled, and the individuals lifted out of their holes in the ground. It’s one of the most positive and (sometimes) noble capabilities of cinema, one that informed the Lumiere brothers’ immediate work after they invented the motion picture camera. Their Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895) watched without judgment as their underpaid, exhausted employees came out of the workplace. Their film – the very essence of documentary – bridged the untenable gap between the working-class subjects and the audience of high-paying French aristocrats who saw its premiere.
It may come as a shock, but more likely as a relief, to realize that with the derivative gunk that rolls into theaters each week, filmmakers are still attentive to the people, places, and things waiting patiently to be exposed to light. Last year found Malik Bendjelloul’s tender film Searching For Sugar Man sweeping the country with warmth and renewed faith in the power of determined, fascinated, investigative documentary. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier world-premiered the extraordinary The Moo Man, about a U.K. dairy farmer with a bovine family of his own. If and when that film finds theatrical distribution, it will likely find strong cash-flow and deep love for its portrait of a dying trade.
In kind with these pictures comes Before You Know It, the recently world-premiered (at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival) second feature-length documentary from cinematographer and filmmaker P.J. Raval. An educator, photographer, experimentalist, and producer (here working with producer Sara Giustini,) Raval has painted an intimate triptych of his featured subjects – Ty Martin, of Harlem; Dennis Creamer, of Niceville, Florida and Gresham, Oregon; and Robert Mainer, of Galveston, Texas. Though minor in scope, the documentary’s real subject is the experience of LGBT senior citizens in U.S. society, which, according to a title card, is shared by 2.4 million people.
There is nothing minor about that number, and Before You Know It traffics in universal, rather than niche, themes. Raval’s interviews with Dennis Creamer, a quiet septuagenarian who identifies as Dee, are as much about the Florida resident’s repression and loneliness as they are about his late-in-life homosexual bloom. The death of his wife inspired Creamer to travel cross-country, nightgowns and grandma wig in tow, to a queer-friendly senior center in Oregon. Dennis/Dee’s vibrant humor and sexual energy on camera are made all the more frustrating by his inability to communicate about his identity to his nieces and nephews.
In stark contrast is the free-rolling life of Ty Martin, a Harlem-based representative of SAGE (Services & Advocacy For Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, & Transgender Elders) and out-and-out gay man. Raval allows Martin to campaign in the still-prejudiced Harlem to positive effect, and we see his co-workers and friends win the right to gay marriage in New York State. Martin represents the integration of LGBT values into middle-class, urban American cities, and his long-term relationship with a gentleman named Stanton suggests the joy that someone like Creamer might enjoy in the right environment.
Occupying the Venn diagram between Creamer and Martin is Robert Mainer, a flamboyant, Cabaret-loving bar owner in Galveston, Texas. Mainer’s bar, LaFitte, is widely seen as home to a range of cross-dressing, bawdy patrons who spend their holidays together. Seen with a dripping, dangling prosthetic penis on his face one minute, and in a goofy Tommy Bahama-style shirt the next, Mainer is the film’s most energetic subject, and rightfully, the face of its poster. But in an interview with the film’s director, Mainer’s nephew and accountant admits that their family refuses to discuss the ailing Robert’s orientation and lifestyle choice. As Mainer becomes sicker and sicker with age, and his bar becomes embroiled in legal troubles, Before You Know It begins its descent into melancholy.
That bittersweet essence permeates the documentary, which uses a raw digital aesthetic to shape these heartfelt, intense three lives into a cohesive whole. Light electronic music suggests a positive, even empowering undertone to basic daily activities, like Creamer walking through Portland in full Dee gear. Before You Know It brings to the surface an underseen community-within-a-community, and for that proves to be an incisive and humane project. Raval’s is not an artistically innovative piece – save for the lyrical stop-motion portraits that bookend the film – but touches such a wide range of human emotion that audiences are likely to smile through their running eyes and noses.