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Interview With Kirby Dick - Exclusive - Part One

Oscar-Nominated Documentarian Talks About Substance And Style - May 1, 2009


Interview With Kirby Dick - Exclusive - Part One

Kirby Dick

Kirby Kick
Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick, known for tackling controversial and challenging subjects -- such as the ‘outing’ of closeted gay politicians in Outrage (2009) -- thinks of each of his films as an ongoing experiment, an investigation of subject and form that he’s never satisfied with, never quite finished with.

“I’m thinking about the work from the moment I get the idea for it and decide on a subject until 20 years after I’ve finished the film--it’s all part of the experiment. Because I’m always asking ‘what if?’,” Dick comments, “Or, ‘what would happen if I did this to it?’ Or, ‘what if I look anew at the subject ten years later, or show the film to the people in the film and and ask them how they see things after time has elapsed?’ So, I‘m still working with a film. Even then.”

The Release of Outrage

Dick’s recently released Outrage has had the immediate effect of focusing public attention on the harmful hypocrisy of gay politicians -- men and women -- who, while vehemently denying their homosexuality, vote harshly against gay civil rights. As the film points out, their leadership in defeating laws guaranteeing gays the right to marry, have equal employment and military service opportunities and be protected from harassment has been a betrayal to the community in which they, in secret, at home.

Although Outrage investigates the very serious issues of hypocrisy about sexual orientation, the reasons why gay politicians feel the need to remain closeted, and the psychological effect being in the closet has on an individual’s psychology and family life, the questions put to Dick are, for the most part, about outing scandals, the legitimacy of his sources and whether there’s a personal agenda is implied in his targeting of more Republicans than Democrats in the film.

Dick’s responses to these questions are direct and informative: he hasn't ‘outed’ anyone who was not known to be gay, and he has double (at least) sourced every bit of information in the film. He points out that politicians from both sides of the aisle are culpable, and that he’s reported on members of both parties representing a range of political offices and demographics. He avows that his agenda is to raise awareness about how harmful hypocrisy is in our society--regardless of party and personage.

Actually, the well-researched film pretty much explains itself, as it should.

Kirby Dick's Roots

With that in mind, I choose to use my opportunity to interview Dick post-Outrage about how he sees the film within the overall progression of his work -- as part of his filmmaker’s arc, if you will.

“Good,” he says. “When I finish a film, I like to reflect on where I am with my work. This is a good opportunity for me to do that. I like it.”

MERIN: Well, then, how did filmmaking start for you? Why documentaries, rather than narratives?

DICK: Well, way back when I was a bad ass kid in art school at California Institute of The Arts, we were experimenting with the crossover between video art and documentaries, and I made a film with one of my classmates that we shot in St Lucia -- it was, in a sense a dramatic narrative, but there were all sorts of other elements in it. For example, in St Lucia they speak a French patois, so we had them speak in their patois while we directed them only for gesture and expression, and when we came back, we added our own story that had very little to do with their dialog. It was a complicated mix of elements that had to do with the relationships and…well, it was it’s own sort of film, a genuine experiment. And, it was funny because it ended up premiering in an ethnographic film series in NY, which was ironic because it wasn’t really an ethnographic film, but rather a sort of a take off of an ethnographic film in which we had people doing all these absurd things that weren't really ethnographic at all. We were young artists who were testing genres and playing with styles to see what we would come up with.

First Feature: From Stylistic Spoof To Sexuality

DICK: From there, I wanted to make a feature film and figured that the quickest, most accessible way to make a feature was in the documentary genre. Well, at the time, a friend of mine was involved in a new kind of therapy called sex surrogate therapy -- for men or women who don't have a sex partner and they're seeing a therapist, and the therapist arranges for them to have a sex surrogate so they can work on their sexual issues. It usually begins with hand holding, but it can progress to other things. I was able to follow people going through that process with a very charismatic sex surrogate. And the film (Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate, 1986) did very well, ending up with theatrical distribution. It was a documentary, and I think that’s a very rich form. I mean it’s so wide open, you can pretty much…it’s like art in that way, you can call whatever you do a documentary. Although sometimes people think of documentaries as just the sort of PBS standard formula -- that sort of subject matter, with talking heads -- but it’s such a wide range of possibilities and it’s so unpredictable.

Defining Documentary

MERIN: If documentary form is so wide open, what’re the defining differences between documentaries and narrative features?

DICK: Well, I’ve also directed short dramatic narrative films, and it’s funny, because when I’m directing actors, I sometimes…well, what fascinates me is who they are as people and how you want to bring that out in their characters. So, in some ways you’re treating actors as you would treat documentary subjects. The reverse is when you’re directing documentary subjects…because it’s not exactly ‘them’ that’s in the film, it’s an aspect of their lives. So, it’s almost the reverse. Sometimes you have to direct them almost as you would direct actors. This crossover has always fascinated me.

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