The Value in Sharing Stories of Victorious Queer People: An Interview with Filmmaker Vivian Kleiman

The Value in Sharing Stories of Victorious Queer People: An Interview with Filmmaker Vivian Kleiman

Written by GOOD DOCS intern Kristina Denise Vazquez

GOOD DOCS: I know you first learned about the queer comics community at the inaugural Queers and Comics Conference. How did that experience inspire the storytelling choices of NO STRAIGHT LINES?

I first learned about the queer comics community by a friend, Greg Sirota, who introduced me to Justin Hall, a prominent queer comics historian and editor of the first anthology of queer comics. It was Justin who encouraged me to attend the inaugural Queer Comics conference in NYC.When I walked into that conference, I was completely astonished by what I saw. It was really the definition of intersectionality. In the middle of this conference space, there was a young person with chartreuse dyed hair covered with tats, engaged in conversation with an older gentleman, who had a balding head and a rumpled, ivy-league collared shirt and a paunched stomach. All around them were about six people who reflected a range of what it means to be LGBTQ. I went, whoa, this is really different. Something special is happening here that is bringing all these different people together. Over the next two, three days of the conference, I heard panels, I got introduced to people, I heard their stories, I like to say it was a casting director's dream.

GOOD DOCS: For sure. I also learned you first engaged with queer comics through Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For. What was it like getting to feature Bechdel and other industry giants so prominently?

Kleiman: Oh, that's an interesting question. First of all, Alison Bechdel's work Dykes to Watch Out For was such a seminal project for so many of us who at the time were struggling with homophobia in the country, homophobia in the world, homophobia in our families, fear of losing jobs, fear of being excommunicated and denounced and all of that. Alison was doing comics about our lives, and real life. Sometimes the characters were very political, sometimes they were investment bankers, sometimes they worked in a bookstore, and sometimes they were protesting the war in Vietnam. The whole range of voices was so important to me, personally. It was a lifeline.

I was introduced to her at the conference itself. She was one of the two keynote speakers, along with Howard Cruise. I was completely wowed by both of them, Alison and Howard. Their presentations were so smart and clear, and they covered the whole range of queer history in the US; Howard being senior to Alison, but the two of them being complimentary in their experiences. Later on, I was able to organize filming with Alison at her home along with Justin Hall, who also was a producer on the film. It was at once exciting and a dream come true and also intimidating because she'd been interviewed by so many people and filmed by so many people. What was I going to do that was going to make a dent? So that's the range of feelings that I had.

GOOD DOCS: Alongside the five pioneers focused on in the film, several new generation cartoonists were featured. What was the motivation behind including these new artists?

Kleiman: Yeah, that's actually a complicated process to describe. I was committed to keeping it not a chronology of who did what when, not an encyclopedia of everybody who was involved in queer comics over the decades. I wanted to profile a few individuals so that the viewer would have a sense of their lives and have more of an emotional connection. Wikipedia, encyclopedias, the internet, all those sources are great for information. But a documentary film for me is more about taking the viewer on a journey, an emotional journey that starts in their heart, and ultimately impacts their head through the heart. And the way to do that is to focus on at most three individuals. But to chronicle 4 decades of queer comic books, there's no way to limit it to three people. So I broke my own rule and profiled five individuals. And that was painful, because there are people who should have been profiled and weren't. And that's unfortunate.

After we had filmed everybody and had started to assemble a film from the footage, I looked at this first rough cut, and it felt stale. It felt like it was missing a vitality. Also, in the course of making the film, I had a lot of pressure to bring it up to date. But what does it mean to bring a documentary film up to date? Because a good film has a longer shelf life and will be seen 30 years from now. For somebody watching it in 2035, ending the film in 2021 doesn't really have that much significance without placing it in a context. What actually was missing from the first rough cut was a welcome mat for a younger viewer. So, I had a problem because on the one hand, I wanted to focus on some individual lives. At the same time, I wanted to introduce more people. Those are two forces that are oppositional to each other. Then one day, I woke up and I had an idea.

The second international in-gathering of queer comic book artists, the Queers and Comics Conference, was held here in San Francisco, my backyard. So, we organized a day of filming at the conference. Justin, who teaches at the school where the conference was held, tapped a couple of his students to be filmed. We also had somebody walk around, and scouting for interesting people to talk with. The experiment was to spend 10 minutes filming 10 or 12 younger artists. I'd never met them before, I didn’t know their comics, and I didn't know how I was going to use the footage. This is not a recipe for great filmmaking. Don't do as I did, kids! My assistant timed me, allowing 10 minutes per person. I just tried to get their sense of the history of queer comics and the significance of the past. In some cases, I asked specific questions about one of the five artists we were profiling. And sometimes I asked about their introduction to the world of queer comics. At the end of the day, I looked at the cinematographer, Andy Black, and he looked at me. He goes, “Viv, that was one of the most dynamic days of filming that I've ever had.” And he adds, “And I have no idea how you're going to use this material.” And I said to Andy, “well, I don't have any idea either.”

Over the course of the next while, we played with it in the editing room. I called it my Greek chorus. I tried having them introduce a scene and conclude a scene, or introduce a section of some sort and end a section, like a Greek chorus would be used in classical theater. I showed that cut to some people, folks who were over the age of 50 who said, “Viv, you can't do this. If you're going to include these people, I need to have more information about them. You can't just plunk people in like that, with just a few seconds of comments, and that's it. That's a distraction. Don’t include them." Then I showed it to younger people, people under the age of 30. They watched the cut, and said, "Viv, what's the problem? Of course, they worked just fine. They're great, in fact." So, I knew that I was going to use them, because my primary audience was not older people, it was younger people, and clearly this approach was working. It was creating a welcome mat to get people curious to hear stories from these older people in the film. So, once I knew that it was working for my targeted audience, then it was a matter of trying to figure out how to use these voices. And that just took a lot of time and trial and error amongst a bunch of us smart people. It was a collaborative process in the end.

GOOD DOCS: So, this was your first time solo-directing for broad distribution?


GOOD DOCS: Was there anything that was really surprising that you learned in that new role?

Kleiman: There's always surprises, or you're wasting your time as an independent filmmaker. As an independent filmmaker, it's a hard road. You don't have a salary, and you don't get vacation time and benefits paid for. So if you're going to be investing your life in this artistic process, then you better be doing something that's going to create waves and bring surprises. There were a lot of surprises. One was, as I said, the intergenerational aspect of comics was really amazing. Another was thinking about the function of comics in the queer community, how it contrasts with the  universe of comics in general, which is more that escapist kind of stuff for the general population. But for the queer community, especially until most recent comics making, it was really spawned by this desire to tell our own stories and to make our own lives visible. Another one of the surprises was just how elastic filmmaking is. It’s like cooking gumbo. We have all these different elements that go into it. If you put in too many, or if you do something too much, then it tastes really bad. If you don't have enough spicing, then it's kind of bland. But if you hit that right note, it's really marvelous. I think this process reflected that it was a lot of trial and error to get the balance just right.

I would have to add two other things. One, I was thrilled and shocked and surprised to be included in the Tribeca Film Festival. That moment when we got accepted was beyond surprise. The second was when I got that request from National Public Television’s Independent Lens series to broadcast the film. It's like, wait a second, we didn't apply for it. They came to us.

I said, “you've got to be kidding.”

“Yes, we saw the film at Tribeca.”

“So, you know that there's exposed body parts.”

“Well, we have to talk about that.”

So just the fact that they were willing to have that discussion, and be in conversation, and take the chance and spend time trying to make it possible to include the film in a series for a public audience was magnificent.

GOOD DOCS: One of the most interesting choices in the entire film was leaving in the minute where Jennifer Camper leaves to calm down while discussing the epidemic. I think the imagery of the empty chair was incredibly moving. What led to the decision, especially in relation to the rest of the imagery in the film?

Kleiman: Thank you so very much. You've given me shivers that it impacted you that way and that you found it worthwhile and noteworthy. That was the biggest gamble that I took. I did it with a lot of thought, and not necessarily confidence, at how it would be received. But here's what happened. The cinematographer, Andy Black, and I had worked together. He was brought on for all the filming, every shoot. We spent extra money to include him so that there would be continuity of camera and aesthetics. His knowledge of the material really helped on a few occasions. The sound recordist, Judy Karp, is one of the country's preeminent sound recordists. I was so thrilled to have her on board, but we'd never worked together before. Without a word spoken, they both kept recording well after Jen got up and left the room crying. And they were still recording when she came back. It's almost a full minute. It was a very complicated situation in the editing room to figure out what to do with it. I just knew in my gut that it had to be in there by itself.

Originally, for the longest while, we just had it play by itself with no added music, but there was a problem editing from that scene to the story that was following, which has to do with the punk scene. Emotionally, I just couldn't go from the quiet of Jen getting up, and then coming back, and finishing that little moment, and then going into the punk scene. So I did something that was more controversial, and some people who watched that next rough cut were not happy with. I added strong music which is more Hollywoodish in style. I felt like the scene needed the weight, the auditory weight, in order to segue from one scene to the next. I kept waiting for criticism and it never came. Last year, I was showing the film to a junior college journalism and doc filmmaking program. I asked the students directly, "Now be honest with me. What did you think of that scene? Was it too long and boring? Everybody talks about attention deficit with a younger generation." There was this huge ‘No, don't touch it! Don't change it! It was my favorite’. So yeah, it was really a complicated decision to make.

GOOD DOCS: One of the things I really appreciate about the film was the discussion of webcomics. Nimona, one of the comics featured within that segment now has an animated movie on Netflix. What do you think about this new wave of queer comics crossing into the mainstream?

Kleiman: Wow, I didn't know that.

GOOD DOCS: Yeah, this is what's happening.

Kleiman: Wow, you're kidding. That is just...awesome. Simply put, awesome. I think it's wonderful. I also think it's complicated. First of all, what the web has offered in terms of queer comics is magic because it's really changed the whole genre. Actually, it's expanded from a couple of genres: autobiography, political indictment, punk. Now with web comics, all genres are able to be utilized by queer artists. You can have sci-fi and you can have fuzzy animals and you can have anything in between and you can alternate if you want. The freedom that the web has given is just majestic. The notion of crossover into mainstream stuff can be complicated. First of all, you really want artists to get work and to get paid for their work. So that's magnificent. But it’s a matter of crossing the Rubicon, and if they will leave original values behind, and take on corporate values. I think that's one of the challenges that artists face when they are becoming commercially accepted.

GOOD DOCS: A lot of students engage more documentaries in my textbooks and similarly engage more with comics in the class of literature. What do you think about integrating more experimental media like documentaries of comics within the class?

Kleiman: Any opportunity that exists for any medium, be it documentary film, be it novels, to expand the form is really exciting. I think that as much as we can have of that is fantastic.

GOOD DOCS: So one of the most poignant lines of film to me was Jennifer Camper saying, “I wanted characters like me to be victorious”. What value do you see in sharing stories about fictional and real life victorious queer people?

Kleiman: Well, I think NO STRAIGHT LINES has many different themes braided through it, but one of the most impactful themes for today is the notion of the power of comics to make our lives visible. In a time when we're experiencing so much censorship and banning of books, many comics are banned. Alison's work has been banned. Maia Kobabe's book, Gender Queer, last year was considered the most banned book across the country, which of course generated more sales than ever. So, I think what’s important is that we don't disappear.

We have accomplished a lot as queer people in this country. We have many more legal rights than we had in the early 70s. At the same time, you'd think that we're a success story, and we can rest on our laurels. However, today, our rights have been diminished and are being further challenged. There's a huge whiplash effect. The rise of the attempted suicide among queer youth is much higher, and disproportionate to the general population. For me, that's super sad and frightening and disturbing. So my hope is that the film will be incorporated into as many classrooms and community groups as possible so that younger people will see that there's this generation of folks who came before. That they faced a whole bunch of challenges and managed to overcome most of them. They worked through it, became successful artists, and had good lives. I hope that the film, the visibility of queer comics, and the visibility of our lives will help support younger people who are struggling.

GOOD DOCS: Great, okay. Before we end the interview, is there anything we haven't talked about that you would like to touch on?

Kleiman: No, I think I've randomly touched on the things I like to add. I would like to say that it was interesting that the film struggled to get financial support. There were a few foundations that supported the work, the Berkeley Film Foundation and the Horizons Foundation, but the biggest amount of the budget came from individuals, and each dollar mattered. It really was about individuals in our queer community supporting this project and helping to make our lives more visible. I hope that our community will continue to sustain queer artists.

Bring the documentary NO STRAIGHT LINES and filmmaker Vivian Kleiman and featured speaker Justin Hall to your campus + community