After watching “Small Town Gay Bar” it has never been more clear to me that the biggest failure through which a documentary can doom itself is deciding its message to the world before shooting it (not that documentaries need to be fashioned according to a message, but that’s a different story.) Even as commendable and necessary as its purpose is (the spread of recognition and respect for gay individuals and their hard attempts to build communities in the rural South,) “Small Town Gay Bar” is so determined to dignify the people it portrays that it ends up silencing them. The emphasis on how normal their lives are as hardworking citizens, god-believer Americans and monogamous lovers leaves out the very differences it is attempting to celebrate. If you live in an environment in which you are harassed every day of your life you are not normal nor you should be; the self-conviction of one’s normality only asserts the conditions in which exclusion and violence take place, it perpetuates an identification with the oppressor and simplifies the social significance of homosexuality in order to appropriate it.
Every interviewed is shown as saintly devoid of resentment, never harboring bad feelings or resentment for the forces that inflict them pain and fear. “If you don’t like me, I don’t care.” The christian remains a martyr, the logic of lynching is internalized by turning the other cheek. There is this moment when, at last, a drag-queen raises her middle finger addressed to the ones that tell her everyday that she is going to hell. It is a good-humored middle finger though, softened by laughter. In a way, it still is “I don’t care.” The documentary wouldn’t allow a middle finger otherwise; it would never show its characters being angry or hurt, not to mention ambivalent. That would open cracks in the early memorial that is being built for them and would ruin the funereal sentimentality culminated in the inspiring music that starts more than 20 minutes before the end and shows the interviewees silently posing, mourned for while still alive. A tragedy flattened by its foreshadowing, why does the drag-queen always has to get killed in narratives?
There were moments when the shots were cut in the middle of people’s sentences. That is perhaps what I found most deeply terrifying. Why were the cut? Maybe they said something considered inappropriate by the director, something that contradicted the overdignified stoic aura that the documentary had created for them even before shooting them. Hard attempts at dignification are suspicious. Everyone is always already worthy, just let the camera show in what unseen, unnoticed ways they are.
Documentary filmmakers: your task is to set the conditions for the appearance of a moment when you have to step back and let the camera do its work… that is when a documentary is born.