P.J. Raval is a cinematographer, writer, and filmmaker based in Austin, Texas. His first feature-length documentary, Trinidad, premiered to wide acclaim following its release in 2008. His most recent feature-length film, Before You Know It, was completed in early 2013 and had its world premiere at the 2013 South By Southwest Film Festival. Before You Know It observes the late-in-life experiences of three LGBT male Americans: Harlem-based Ty Martin, Galveston-based Robert Mainer, and Niceville and Gresham-based Dennis Creamer. Mr. Raval’s film is an Official Selection of the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival. Mr. Raval spoke over Skype from Austin with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary to discuss the film’s four-year-long production process, his personal responsibility towards his subjects, and what qualifies as queer film. This interview – part 2 of two parts – has been compressed, transcribed, and edited from audio for publication. It contains spoilers.
SM: When you’re filming these people, I imagine you start to have small ethical dilemmas. For example, when you see Robert’s business [LaFitte, a gay bar] going under and getting sued by a bunch of people, or Dennis being afraid to come out to his family. Do you, as the filmmaker, have to commit to being their friend in order to shoulder the responsibility of presenting their situations to the world?
PJR: This being my second documentary, I will say this: I think, my subjects being who they are and me being myself, I would naturally be friends with all of them. There will always be this feeling of, “What’s up with you? I would love to catch up!” I don’t know that I feel obligated to be their friends…I do think it would happen naturally.
SM: The inherent depth of your empathy with your subjects shines through in Before You Know It. Especially with Ty, whose relationship with [SAGE coworker] Ose you fledge out most fully, do you seem to be connected. Is it an emotional challenge to think about your subjects being so close to passing away?
PJR: Early on when making the film, this question obviously came up – what if someone I was following died during production? And I hate to say this, but someone mentioned that that could be a really powerful part of the film. But I really did not want that. For me, it’s actually more about celebrating life and embracing your age. Yes, this was on my mind and yes, I worried about it. At Rainbow Vista, Ian and the residents would say that if someone didn’t come down for lunch or dinner, they’d have to go knock on their door to make sure nothing is wrong. The possibility of something happening is certainly there. But both Dennis and Robert say, “You know, I could get hit by a truck tomorrow,” you know? Sure, they’re older, so there chances of dying are greater, but since we never know, you can’t live fearing death. So my feelings have been that I couldn’t behave like they were on some kind of death sentence. And in terms of responsibility –
SM: That is precisely what I’m getting at. There’s a scene, for example, where Dennis goes on a gay cruise and is totally alone, with nothing to do and no one specifically to see. You must have been forced to egg him on and get him into action.
PJR: Dennis is a great example because, as you know, he was not out. So when I began to express my interest in filming him, we had to have a conversation about the film being seen. I said it would likely be seen by many people. It will potentially be on television, in movie theaters, in Portland or here or there. And how do you feel about this, with your family [being unaware?] He’s got a good sense of humor, and early on he says, “Well, I doubt any of my family will seek out a gay senior documentary.” And while I said, “Well, OK! *Laughs*,” I had to mention that word might get out from a friend of a friend or a photograph in a newspaper. And Dennis replied, “Let’s see what happens.” I believe that he was using the film as a way to feel a bit more okay.
In an interview we did for the premiere, someone asked him why he agreed to do the documentary. He basically said, “I met PJ and he seemed like a really nice guy who was genuinely interested in this. “ Then he took a personal moment, and said, “Then I thought to myself: I don’t have any kids. I don’t have any close family. This is potentially part of my legacy; I like to think I’m leaving something behind for people to know what I was about.
SM: That must have been devastating to hear. How amazing.
PJR: Yeah, and those were only some of his feelings. Back to the scene on the cruise – one of the things I work not to do is influence any scene too much. I’m actually quite far back. We have a microphone there and everyone knows we’re filming because there’s a notice. But in some scenes you have to just try and act like you’re not there. Sometimes it’s impossible to do that.
SM: Can you give me an example of scene where it is impossible to act like you are not there?
PJR: Like when Dennis is getting ready for his hookups! It’s like, how could someone NOT know you’re there, when you’re undressing for the people there? Moments like those are all about the trust and the intimacy you have to establish – someone will not let you roll the camera that does not trust and feel comfortable with that happening. I was not saying beforehand, “We have to film this and this and this.” It just kind of felt right with that scene because I feel it is a very honest and vulnerable state for Dee [Dennis’s female identity] to be in.
SM: When you take the responsibility for a person’s legacy – someone like Dennis, who is 75-years-old, doesn’t have much family, is not out of the closet – does it ever bother you to think your film might be a sort of “tough sell” for film or television? Another example: you are entrusted as the time-capsuler of Ty’s attendance at Ose’s legal wedding in New York. Now, the subject of your film fascinates you and me, but does it worry you in this regard to think that Before You Know It might have trouble finding anything but a niche audience?
PJR: I see what you’re saying, but no, that does not bother me. I tend to be the sort of person who does not want to think about where my options are limited, whether people will react to the subject, et cetera. I just don’t want my creative process to be restrained in any way. I deeply feel that if you can get to something real and emotionally honest, especially with something that’s nonfiction, it becomes universal in a way. I see how on paper it looks –
SM: Like a documentary about three gay seniors.
PJR: Right, but it is more about these ideas of aging, and exploring community, and loneliness and acceptance. Those things are across the board, and it doesn’t matter the community you are coming from – I’m just using those gay seniors as extreme examples of ageism and loneliness.
SM: What I think is interesting about that point is that the places you mentioned with flourishing gay communities – Austin, Portland, Boston, New York, maybe even Miami – have only recently, in the media, begun to develop into what many consider demographics. If you were able to choose yourself where to have this film seen – whether it be national, theatrical distribution or television programming, whatever – to which of these demographics do you see the film going? Do you think the film speaks only to a certain community? I don’t want to limit you here with options, by the way.
PJR: No, I actually think that is a great question, because I am facing it right now thinking about what to do with this film. I would really love everyone to see it. There are a lot of reasons for people to work in film; mine is not necessarily to make money. *Laughs* If it were, I would probably not be in film, or at least not in such independent documentary films. What I want to do [in film] is start discussions, so: ITVS, since they sponsored me, have the broadcast rights for the United States. So we are trying to figure the “what and how” out right now, and the “if,” since there’s always the possibility it might not [reach broadcast.] We’re in talks with theatrical distributors, too, but of course we’ve only had one official festival screening, San Francisco’s [International Film Festival] is obviously coming up, Boston, a couple others…We’ve also just figured out our international screenings, which will start this summer. Education is such a huge thing with this film – I want to get it out to schools and libraries and museums. But what I really want to do with it, and with all my films for that matter, are community screenings. For instance, we are talking with SAGE about possibly having some related event anywhere with an active SAGE community. If we could do these without going broke, and have these events sustain themselves somehow, then that, for me, would be the ideal. Do I need to be in fifty cities? That would be amazing, but that’s not going to be my only option. I think that might be my idea in general with my films.
SM: You have quite an interesting resume [including over thirty titles as cinematographer, experimental short films, and previous documentary Trinidad.]
PJR: A lot of them deal with some kind of outsiderness, usually LGBT – most of what I make, I would say, falls into “queer” category. But I do not make the work for queer audiences; I make them for, you know, all *laughs*.
SM: I know that you know this idea of “queer film” is an enormous, dynamic issue. Are all the things that you’ve made queer films? If I had directed a similar documentary about these three gentlemen, would it still be queer cinema?
PJR: Yeah, this is a real issue.
SM: As an experimental filmmaker, do you find yourself more at ease making something that’s perhaps more abstract or distant from real life? Or do you prefer a project like this, a nonfiction feature?
PJR: Having worked on some experimental projects, I learned from those films that anything is really possible. I had a friend who used to say, “making films was A-B-C-D, and making experimental movies is A-1-Z-E.” I think that even when you’re working on something experimental, even if it works on “A-1-Z…”, it has to have its own coherency somehow. Even if it is experimental, it is still a film: it’s still going to be temporal; it’s still going to be an audiovisual medium; and you still have to ask the viewer to interact with it. That has allowed me to be simpler in choosing subject matter for my nonfiction film, thinking that it can be more specific, and it can be more of a character piece, just as you might see in a fiction film.
SM: Now, you have written scripts for full-length fiction features. Do you still find yourself moving in that direction in filmmaking?
PJR: No, no, I don’t, actually. Part of that is because I’m much more inspired when I read [a script.] There’s a script I’m working on now that a friend of mine is writing, which is amazing. And it’s much easier for me to just be there to give comments. I love it for me because he gets to inject his own thoughts into it. And I love that film is collaborative in that way. If I don’t ever have to write a screenplay again, I am fine with that.