Question? Johnny Symons has some for the military in "Ask Not." (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Johnny Symons and "Ask Not"

Michael Fox April 12, 2008

East Bay filmmaker Johnny Symons has a bone to pick with former President Bill Clinton. More precisely, with the policy familiarly known as "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" that prevents openly gay men and women from serving in the military. Since its adoption in 1993, more than 12,000 queer soldiers have been discharged, while the remaining 65,000 are compelled to keep their sexual identity a secret. Symons, who spotlighted the hurdles of gay and lesbian Americans in Daddy & Papa and Beyond Conception, explores this under-reported situation in the straight-shooting documentary Ask Not. The title is a play on Clinton’s ill-conceived compromise, of course, and on President Kennedy’s famous inaugural-speech challenge, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." The film introduces us to discharged soldiers Alex and Jarrod on a gutsy Call to Duty speaking tour, a soldier serving in Iraq and gays and lesbians sitting in at recruiting offices to protest the law that prevents them from enlisting. "Ask Not" has its world premiere April 26 at the Castro and May 5 at the Sundance Kabuki as part of the SFIFF51.

This week, runs a special series of interviews with Bay Area filmmakers in the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival. SFIFF51 runs April 24-May 8 at the Sundance Kabuki, Castro, Pacific Film Archive, Clay Theatre and other locations.

SF360: It makes perfect sense that a film about gay rights is premiering at a high-profile San Francisco festival, but Ask Not is likely to provoke a range of reactions.

Johnny Symons: Particularly for San Francisco audiences, there’s a lot of ambivalence about a film about gays in the military because the gay community here tends to be certainly anti-war and fairly often anti-military. So I think one of the challenges of that audience here, and frankly for me also, is to say, how is this relevant? How do I tell and how do we see this story so we fully understand how critical the denial of these rights is to the whole LGBT community? I want to throw it out to people to see the film and think about the larger issues out there. How far can we advance in terms of full achievement of gay rights if we’re still discriminated against in the military?

SF360: Was there a particular incident that inspired the film?

Symons: I was mostly inspired by the fact that I didn’t feel like a really compelling or comprehensive documentary had been created on a subject that had such far-reaching implications. And it seemed like a great opportunity to delve into the misconception that existed around this so-called compromise and find out what the experience is really like for gay and lesbian service members. Especially in a wartime situation and experiencing the stresses of being in combat and having to hide your innermost feelings.

SF360: There’s a scene of a black reservist, identified only as ‘Perry,’ enjoying a last latte with friends in the Castro before flying out to Iraq. Wouldn’t a soldier from the heartland perhaps have been easier for most viewers to identify with?

Symons: Yeah, sure, on one hand a gay soldier coming from San Francisco is stereotypical. For me, I thought that was a fascinating scene to be witnessing. It’s not just the young guy who leaves Birmingham or Atlanta or Missouri and says goodbye to his family and gets on a plane and goes to Iraq. That happens in the heart of the Castro, too. And it’s just as difficult to say your goodbyes and talk about your motivations and how you might be changed by the experience of serving in combat. It’s just as difficult for a gay person as a straight person. As a filmmaker, I feel like that was one of the most remarkable or unusual moments that I was able to capture. His community is confused and troubled by his decision and wondering why he would sacrifice his identity as well as put himself in harm’s way.

SF360: Some viewers are bound to question why anyone would be clamoring to get into the military during wartime, especially gay people. Will that affect how the film is received?

Symons: It really depends on the audience. I have gotten the reaction from many, many people who are politically savvy and progressive and live in the Bay Area who are intrigued by the issues but are left scratching their heads, ‘Why would anyone want to do this now?’ But the reality is a lot of Americans make the choice to join because of family reasons—they come from a military background— or their peers are joining, or for economic reasons, and those tend not to be as relevant for people around the Bay Area film scene.

SF360: Compared with that rough-cut screening for members of the local film community, how do you think a more representative American audience will react?

Symons: In some ways it creates a greater sense of urgency, because the military has a greater demand for soldiers. It becomes all the more absurd to be kicking people out when they have really useful skills like speaking Arabic or flying a fighter jet just because of who they’re attracted to. In a way, the war broadens the argument for getting rid of the policy. You could certainly point out that it was discriminatory, that there was a strong civil rights argument against having this policy in place, but now there are also strong national security arguments and economic arguments that reach across the political spectrum. That may help people who might have originally been in support of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ understand that it’s not in the nation’s best interests.

SF360: The country seems to be out in front of the politicians on this one, suggesting that the influence of the Religious Right is preventing a change in the law. Do you see the film as pushing back against the Right, and influencing the path of legislation?

Symons: The entire American culture is really shifting its view toward gay and lesbian people. There’s a whole generation enlisting who’ve seen openly gay people on MTV, on any TV network, and are very comfortable with that dialogue. Seventy-five percent of service members are comfortable with gays and lesbians. What that means is it’s not a big deal for the troops.

There’s a lot of comparison in the film to Harry Truman and the integration of African Americans in the military in the 1940s. At that point, President Truman was in a minority when he decided, ‘This is the action we’re going to take.’ He was not backed by popular opinion. And then the nation came around. But in this situation, it’s kind of the opposite. The nation is ahead of where the military is and the military has to catch up. It’s really important to point out that the military can catch up. They’re very good at creating and enforcing policy. There are and will continue to be homophobic people who enter the military, and once there’s a policy change the military will enforce it—as well as an anti-discriminatory policy.

SF360: I was a little surprised you didn’t reference World War II in the film, a time when millions of men of all creeds were thrown together with comparatively few problems.

Symons: I really wanted it to be a current and forward-looking film. There are other films, like Arthur Dong’s Coming Out Under Fire, that deal with the history. This is where we are now. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ doesn’t allow people to get to know each other and trust each other. Not just for gay people but for straight people. The military is about building camaraderie and you’ll throw yourself into harm’s way to protect your brother, your fellow service member. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ prohibits gay service members from saying anything private. They have to lie about what they did over the weekend when they were off base, or who they’re getting a letter from if they’re in Iraq. In justifying ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ the military used the argument that open gay service would harm ‘unit cohesion.’ In fact, studies are finding it’s more harmful to unit cohesion to not have gay people talk about who they are, because the straight guys feel like they don’t really know who that guy is. They know they’re not getting the whole story. So the unit doesn’t fight as well together.

SF360: How did the relationship that developed between Alex and Jarrod during their Call to Duty tour affect the production of the film?

Symons: Anytime you have an unexpected development there’s some pros and some cons. The con here is that it was a little bit of a distraction, it was off-point to focus on this evolving personal relationship. But at the same time it really humanized the characters. We got to see them in a very different lens in their own life. Not just the tough, forceful speakers taking on the American public on a policy issue, but as two unexpected romantic partners. You don’t usually think of tough guys from the army falling in love with each other. It also underscores the point that that’s what you can’t do in the military. They have an opportunity to fall in love. And to be in love, to be out and about in their relationship, which they would not have if they were serving under this policy.

SF360: There’s a scene where Alex is a guest on a talk-radio show in South Carolina, and a caller opposed to gays in the military tosses out the old chestnut, ‘Who would you rather be in a foxhole with, John Wayne or Liberace?’ The caller can’t see that Alex is a broad-shouldered, solidly built man of around 190 pounds, but we can.

Symons: That was something the subjects were very keenly aware of, that those stereotypes exist and it was important that they debunk them, not only verbally but visually. They needed to show people by their physical presence that they could hold their own. They were just as strong, as capable, as powerful as any heterosexual soldiers. And then you throw in Alex speaks five languages, including Arabic, and we have someone here who has a lot to contribute to the nation.

SF360: Do you consider yourself a political filmmaker?

Symons: I do. I don’t consider myself to be a filmmaker who tries to hit people over the head with political viewpoints. But I think it’s very hard to tackle gay issues in documentaries in this day and age and not be dealing with politics. Gay people are incredibly politicized, and our rights and acceptance are not on par with straight people on so many levels that to discuss it in film is inherently political.

SF360: At the same time, your films are absolutely character-driven.

Symons: I like them to be complicated, too. I feel like it’s not nearly as engaging where characters are one-dimensional, where they’re just representing people who are oppressed. I want the audience to walk out of a theater or walk away from a TV set and say, ‘I thought the film was about this.’ And for the other person to say, ‘Well, this is what I got out of it.’ So debate and dialogue are sparked as a result. So many of my films are like a mirror. There’s something in there that grabbed the viewer. Maybe it had to do with race or class or history or psychology, and that’s what they think the film’s about.

SF360: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being identified as a gay filmmaker?

Symons: I’ve struggled with it to some degree. Do I want to pigeonhole myself into a certain genre? Or do I want to show that I have not only the capability but the interest to explore a variety of issues. There are a ton of ideas that draw me to them, but when it comes right down to it, it takes so much dedication, so much passion, so much effort to bring a full-length documentary from start to finish that I have to choose something that’s really close to my heart. I feel like there are so many stories in the gay community that are not being fully told and explored and debated that I often come back to it and say, this is what I need to work on next.

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