“Outrage,” the new film from Oscar-nominated documentarian and redoubtable muckraker Kirby Dick (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” “Twist of Faith”), isn’t an inflammatory exercise in outing politicians, though it certainly isn’t afraid to name names. It hones in on how closeted politicos have tended, perversely, to have the most steadily anti-gay rights voting records, counting on the gay community to keep their secret even as they’ve legislated against it. And as the title promises, “Outrage” is angry, but it’s also undoubtedly sad, an analysis of the psychological effect that years of lying, hiding and fear have had on these very public figures. A week after “Outrage”‘s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, I sat down with the filmmaker to talk about outing as a political act, Ed Koch and his challenge to fellow documentary makers.
One of the most interesting elements of the film is the argument that the mainstream media just doesn’t want to cover this story. Why do you think that is?
In some cases, it’s an issue of access. If a reporter ever asks, “There are a lot of rumors that you’re gay, you’re voting anti-gay, this is an issue of hypocrisy, I just want to ask you…” they might not ever get access to that politician again, and access is their stock in trade. They need that.
Another issue is that, although it is improving, there’s an “ick” factor to writing about gay sexuality in the mainstream press. The gay press is saying, “Look, we want complete parity between the way you treat stories that deal with gay sexuality and straight sexuality, even to the point of scandal,” because it’s like [US Representative] Barney Frank says in the film: If a reporter will write about a scandal surrounding straight sex, but won’t write about a scandal surrounding gay sex, it’s like saying there’s something wrong with gay sex. And that permeates the culture and keeps this homophobia alive.
Your film poses a challenge to itself in that sense — what can a documentary accomplish that a cover story in the Advocate can’t?
I think it can do a lot. That was one of the reasons [for making it]. This film is built on the shoulders of the gay press. It surprised me and surprises a lot of journalists I talk to, why these stories — that are often very well-researched, very well-sourced — are not reported on. We’ve seen that the mainstream press has struggled to keep control of the message. Blogs are changing that some, but I think the documentary comes out from an entirely different direction. People have to write about the documentary, it gets reviewed — it’s entertainment. It’s another avenue in.
Obviously the movie is not just about outing people, but there have been journalists who’ve taken the outing of any public figure as a kind of political act. What do you think of that?
Is it a political act or is it a journalistic act? Maybe it’s both. It’s certainly a journalistic act. My film isn’t about outing gay politicians, it’s about reporting on the hypocrisy of closeted politicians voting anti-gay. That’s something that journalists and documentary filmmakers not only have a right to do, they have an obligation to do. There’s no reason that a journalist shouldn’t report on this hypocrisy the way they would report on any other hypocrisy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
It’s more complex when you deal with celebrities. We had a section in our film that looked into that, and it just opened a whole panorama that didn’t get resolved. It diluted the focus. But it’s interesting — if an A-list actor came out, that could be one of the most important things that could happen for the gay rights struggle in this country, more important than if someone like Larry Craig, when he was closeted, had come out and started voting pro-gay. There’s an argument to be made that these people are benefiting financially by putting on a charade of heterosexuality, and that allows the feeling that there’s something wrong with being gay and it keeps the homophobia at play. It isn’t quite the same bright line that was in my film, where I focused on people who had direct influence over other’s lives, so I decided not to go into that. I think that a very interesting film could be made on that.
Because “Outrage” is angled at exposing the hypocrisy of people who are closeted and then vote against gay rights issues, you end up taking on majority Republicans. Why did you choose to include Ed Koch?
I was interested to look at the closet historically. And certainly you can partially trace the anti-gay hysteria to the AIDS crisis. So this is an early step, when you had a closeted politician who was mayor of a city at the center of the epidemic and who had the opportunity to step forward right at the beginning and put funds into the AIDS crisis, and he chose not to. And that had a very serious impact on the whole epidemic.