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Views: Culture as activism
by Tracy Baim
2009-09-23

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I have always been a fan of "the movies." When I was 14 I snuck a TV into my room and watched In the Glitter Palace ( 1977 ) with Barbara Hershey playing a lesbian. Personal Best and Desert Hearts came out when I was a young adult, followed by other lesbian films: some good, many terribly bad. But even the bad ones provided at least some relief from the constant hetero beat of Hollywood.

As someone who has covered the LGBT community for 25 years, mostly from a news perspective, I have also seen how sometimes our issues can be further advanced by "culture" than by activism. We need it all, of course: People in the streets, people in the board rooms, and people getting a better understanding of us through TV and movies.

A few years ago I started working on a military love story movie, but that got sidetracked to a stage play, Half Life. In 2007, when I had just about given up hope that would become a film, I interviewed Claudia Allen for www.ChicagoGayHistory.org and suggested that her stage plays would make great films. And from there, less than 12 months later, we were shooting Hannah Free in my home on the South Side. Directed by Wendy Jo Carlton, adapted by Allen for film, and involving more than 400 people at some level, this was a labor of love on the scale of Gay Games for me, just in a more condensed timeline.

I served as executive producer, which is a fancy title for basically doing anything from running to the store for water to writing checks and raising money. I learned so much in such a short window of time, and was so lucky to have an amazing support team for everything we needed for the film. Whether it was Martie Marro doing the Web site, sound design and music; Sharon Zurek as editor and post-supervisor; or star Sharon Gless staying in the coach house during filming, everyone pitched in at an amazing level. It took a huge village to make this film, and now I know why there are not a lot of lesbian films—it is a very difficult and expensive process, one that also involves miracles and luck. And every favor you could ever call in with family and friends.

What is it about movies that change our lives? The stories can help society see us differently, but for me it is more important for our own community to see a wide range of stories reflecting our lives. Hannah Free is a "period" movie, told across 60 years in the lives of two women, ending in a 1990s Michigan nursing home. We see young lovers, and we see older women loving one another. How many Hollywood films show older people being intimate, much less two women? Sharon Gless and Maureen Gallagher steam up the screen with their screen chemistry, and it validates the lives of so many long-term couples of all kinds.

As the film has played the festival and theatrical circuit this summer, I have been lucky to attend some of the screenings. The emotions have been very high, with lesbians, gay men and straight couples all responding strongly to the message of love and who chooses a family. The topics are timely given the current healthcare end-of-life debate, and also with the same-sex marriage battles in Maine, California and beyond. Who gets to make decisions about our loved ones? Even the best legal documents have been challenged, and anything short of full equality will mean continued terrible circumstances for some couples.

So Hannah Free is just one offering in a long line of LGBT cinema trying to reflect a portion of our lives. I can't thank Chicagoans enough for the amazing support we received. We did all of our work here, including post-production. And we also received support from outside our city, from house parties and donors across the country. We have seen the tears, heard the laughter, and been proud to represent Chicago as part of a new lesbian film. Please show your support by seeing the film Sept. 25-Oct. 1 at Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. ( See www.hannahfree.com for other cities and countries. ) There are lots of great films to choose from this fall, and your support of this one will send a message to future LGBT filmmakers that our community can support not just the next Hollywood drama, but also independent cinema from us, by us, and for everyone.


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