A love letter to LGBTIQ+ elders

Fighting for equality and celebrating LGBTIQ+ elders in The Coming Back Out Ball Movie

Ahead of its national release (6 December, 2018), we talk to the team behind the fabulous and affecting documentary The Coming Back Out Ball Movie. Made with both development and production support from Film Victoria, the film closed the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), leaving the 1000-strong audience crying, laughing and cheering as the credits rolled.

In this Q&A, Director Sue Thomson talks about the inspiration behind the film and shares some of the powerful responses it has received. Producer Adam Farrington-Williams discusses its social impact and the specific ways Film Victoria funding helped – not only financially but as a badge of legitimacy that gave the production momentum. And one of the cast – the heart of The Coming Back Out Ball Movie – Trace Williams, tells us what this film means to her, and what she hopes you take away from it.

What has the reception been so far? Can you share any stand-out stories from viewers?

Sue: The reaction to this film has been amazing! Being selected as the Closing Night film at MIFF elevated the film in ways we could not have imagined. An audience of nearly a thousand people cried, laughed and cheered as the credits rolled. People were eager to speak to our cast, acknowledge them, celebrate them and say thank you to them. And the cast were elated with the response too.

A lot of people have cried at our screenings and they want us to understand this is because the film has made them feel acknowledged. We have had people approach us with new ideas for documentaries in the LGBTIQ+ space, one woman shared a story of her mother who has transitioned and how important Michelle and Barb’s story was and how it made her feel less alone.

In America, the film screened at the Teaneck International Film Festival, where renowned journalist Sandi Klein opened the Q&A session by telling the audience how much she loved the people in this film and empathised with them. She then turned to the crowd and asked them "doesn’t David Morrison look like Jimmy Carter?” and they all yelled out “Yes!” in agreement. The American audience were very verbal about their love for the film and how much they learned from watching it. The film really does makes us all see the world a little differently.

What kind of audience has the film attracted? Is this as expected?

Sue: Audiences have been as diverse as the film! A lot of members of the LGBTIQ+ community are obviously coming to see the film and we have been touched to see their powerful, emotional responses. They say the film moves them, making them laugh out loud but also weep with pain at the struggles these people face. We are surprised and delighted at the number of young people who are coming to the film too. It resonates with them.

The Coming Back Out Ball Movie has broad audience appeal – catering to the old, the young and middle aged and people of all sexual and gender identities. There really is something for everyone in this love letter to these remarkable older LGBTIQ+ people.

What was the inspiration behind making this film? And why now?

Sue: Performance Artist Tristan Meecham read a report by Melbourne academic Dr Catherine Barrett, which highlighted that a lot of older LGBTIQ+ Australians are going back into the closet to receive decent healthcare. Devastated by this, Tristan wanted to do something to honour and celebrate the older people who paved the way for him as a young gay man himself. He decided to put on a Ball and invite all older LGBTIQ+ people in Melbourne to come along and be acknowledged and loved – a beautiful idea that needed to be made into a film. Tristan and his partner Roger Monk asked me to make the documentary and so began our three-year journey together.

You received development and production support from Film Victoria for the film. How did each stage of funding help the film’s overall success?

Adam: The importance of developing the treatment and thrashing out how you may want to tell a story and getting the vision right is very important. That doesn't mean you can’t be flexible with the story along the way – we're in documentary filmmaking after all and the unexpected is the beauty of it. But being able to conduct preliminary interviews and consider story drivers and structures during development is key. Likewise, being able to employ a team during principal photography to follow a large group of participants was absolutely vital to capturing the many stories that make up our film.

Aside from financial, what were the benefits of receiving Film Victoria support?

Adam: Being able to say Film Victoria has supported your film lends the project a legitimacy. This is important for everyone associated with the project, from the participants to, in the case of a social impact film like ours, potential sector partners and supporters. So there's a real flow on effect and momentum gained from the support. As producers, we can really leverage it to not only access further finance, but generate excitement in the rest of the marketplace.

What social impact has the film had in terms of legislation, the aged care industry and the wider community?

Adam: With the film’s success at both MIFF and our theatrical preview screenings, the consistent message people have expressed is genuine appreciation that the film has been made. It speaks to them and illuminates stories that have been suppressed or hidden. Everyone who sees this film immediately wants to share it with others.

We want the film to reach regional communities around Australia where stories like these can have an extraordinary impact, as well as being used as a tool for change in the aged care sector, schools and universities.

The film centres on the attendees of the Coming Back Out Ball. What was the process for casting?

Sue: Tristan spent over a year finding older members of LGBTIQ+ communities through friends, colleagues and organisations that work in the sector. He then began to build his own community, a team of people to work together on the project. I started to bring my camera out at these early community consultations I began to hear the stories that would end up shaping the narrative of the film. The process of casting the film was difficult. I wanted to give as many people as possible a voice in the film but I still had to cut a few. In the end, 11 people, including Tristan, feature in the film and we are enormously proud of introducing you to these extraordinary humans.

What were some of the highlights during production of The Coming Back out Ball Movie?

Sue: As with all documentaries, the greatest gift is spending time with the people in the film. In listening to their stories and sharing a little of your own, new worlds slowly open up, new friendships develop, and you gain new ways of understanding. Working on a project for three years also has a lasting effect on everyone involved. The Coming Back Out Ball Movie introduced me to a wonderful group of resilient, determined older people who continue to contribute in very significant ways to our society, and that is important for us all to remember.

Trace, what was your role in The Coming Back Out Ball Movie and why did you agree to feature in it?

I was interviewed by Sue as an intersex Elder and agreed to be part of this film to help educate people about intersex health and wellbeing.

What were the challenges and highlights of being in the film?

Trace: I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate as there were no personal challenges in being part of the film!

There were two key highlights for me in doing this film. The first is that people from all walks of life, from the Governor of Victoria to avid film buffs and the curious, are seeing stories about intersex people. These stories are not only about older intersex people but also about the plight that befalls many people born with an Intersex variation, and the human rights violations that are still ongoing in this country today. That is the power of this film.

The second highlight is the caring and dignified way the film represents older members of the LGBTIQ+ community. For some members of our communities The Coming Back Out Ball was truly their ‘coming out’. I think for the participants in the film, it allows us to further educate so many people who watch the documentary. People from so many demographics and age groups can now learn about some of the indignant practices that we have experienced in life, but also see that we are incredibly resilient and proud of who we are. 

How do you think the film has changed people’s perception of LGBTIQ+ elders?

Trace: There are many people who do not even know what the word intersex means, and there is an incredibly vast difference to having a clinical diagnosis of an Intersex variation as opposed to living your life with your variation. The lucky few live incredibly fulfilling lives but a higher percentage do not because of non-consensual surgical interventions, hormone treatments and discrimination, and many members of our community suffer major mental health issues. Our community is so poorly funded it beggars belief. 

I urge you to see this film and tell others to watch it too. And after you've watched it, look at an important document that we are trying to elevate into law – it is called The Darlington Statement. 

Who do you hope sees the film and what do you hope they take away from it?

Trace: I trust that all people who wish to end human rights violations in society will go and see this film and I hope that they will understand that we are still a long way from achieving equality. However, there are those of us, including those who had the vision for this film and The Coming Back Out Ball, including the cast, the director, the producers, the film backers and those of you who come to watch it, that together we will continue to fight for equality, fairness and inclusion for all.

Why is The Coming Back Out Ball Movie important to you?

Trace: Quite simply, if you would like a little humility in your life, please identify with the closing scene in the film and walk down a country lane.