PJ Raval discusses Before You Know It, his new documentary on aging in the LGBTQ community
In his latest film, Before You Know It, director PJ Raval shares the stories of three older gay men as they navigate the world. A raw and beautiful look into the personal lives of different individuals from across the United States, the documentary explores the senior side of the LGBTQ community, one often left out of the conversation focusing on contemporary queer life and cultural identity.
Ty Martin, one of three subjects in the documentary Before You Know It.
In advance of the Colorado premiere of Before You Know It as tomorrow night's opening movie of the Cinema Q Film Festival, Raval spoke with Westword about ageism in American society and how he found the subjects for this film.
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Westword: What brought you to make this film in the first place?
PJ Raval: I made a film previous to this one called Trinidad, which is about Trinidad, Colorado, the sex-change capital of the world. When I was traveling with that film, I happened to be at a reception that was attended by a large population of retired LGBT seniors. I think it was the first time that I was standing in a space and recognizing the visible community.
I started thinking, why am I not hearing or seeing any of their stories in films? Around the same time, I was volunteering to teach queer youth filmmaking. Some of the kids in there were as young as fourteen. So somewhere in that time period, I started thinking about how there is this large spectrum -- from the 74-year-olds I had just met to these fourteen-year-olds -- that had me thinking about if these groups were informed about each other.
Thinking about how a fourteen year old, right now, is able to -- I mean, not everyone, but -- get some support to come out and explore their sexual identity. There's even things like gay-straight alliances in high schools. I just kept thinking about, well, times were very different when these seniors were fourteen.
When I think about this particular group of seniors, they really have seen a huge amount of change in their lifetime -- beyond just being a gay senior or the idea of them growing up in a time of the civil rights era, all the way to seeing DOMA taken down. I thought it would be a great opportunity to start sharing some of these stories and documenting them.
The kind of films I like to make right now, documentary-wise, are films that are portraits of people. I really like the idea of getting to know someone and experiencing their life in a more intimate view, and how through that process you can actually see the everyday challenges and issues that they face. When I set out to make the film, I knew that I wanted to do a portrait, but I didn't know exactly of whom yet. That's also kind of the fun aspect of making a documentary film -- you never know who you're going to meet or where the film will take a turn.
You documented to three very different gentlemen's stories from different parts of the country. How did you choose your subjects?
First of all, I think it's impossible to represent a whole community -- because a community is so diverse and varied and that's what is amazing about it. When I set out to find the subjects for the film, I was really open to meeting all of these different people and hearing all of these different stories. These three individuals from the film, when I first met them, I immediately gravitated towards them and was interested in their stories for certain reasons. I think it's because all three of them together are really in the throes of being challenged by life in general.
Dennis, for instance, he is so much about self-discovery; for me that was really about breaking down the stereotype of like, when you're in your "golden years" and you're supposed to know everything you need to know. But I like the idea that you're always discovering yourself. You're constantly learning who you are.
That brought me into Ty's story, because not only are you learning about yourself, you're learning about other people and you're also dealing with the times changing. I was so intrigued by Ty's story because when I first met him, he told me he never thought he would witness a large population of his community die off -- because of the HIV/AIDS crisis.