The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: A Talk with the Directors

Categories: Politics
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Documentary filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are lucky -- and they know who to thank.

First, they acknowledge the sheer power of Sheila Nevins, HBO's documentary czar, who nudged them to look at the controversial Don't Ask, Don't Tell law. More importantly, they acknowledge the luck that comes with fortuitous timing.

"It was on again, off again," Bailey explains. He and Barbato made The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell over the last two years before Congress voted to repeal the law, wrapping up the editing last week. They managed to coordinate the film's release date the same day the repeal will go into effect -- Sept. 20.

However, because Congress flirted with the idea of repealing the law a few times while they were making the documentary, they both were a little worried that the repeal might come before the film's release -- and who would want to watch a movie then?

"There was a period where it looked like it was going to get repealed, then the Senate pushed back twice, then the [November 2010] midterms happened, and it was like, it's never gonna happen," Bailey says. "We just tried following it and keeping up with it, though there wasn't much logic in how it unfolded."

Baily and Barbato, who have made almost two dozen other documentaries for HBO, managed to succeed where others tried -- and failed.

"I got at least one phone call a year for about a dozen years from a film crew that had some funding and who wanted to tell this story," says Aaron Belkin, a SFSU political science professor who's featured in the film and who closely follows DADT. "With only one exception those films never got made. This policy is about silence and invisibility, and it's hard to make a movie about invisibility."

The filming began two years ago as an exploration of homophobia in the military, and Bailey and Barbato spent months finding gay servicemembers who were willing to talk to the camera -- with their identities hidden.

"With the active military members, that did take a while," Barbato says. "But once we met with the first couple, then there is this underground network, and people said we were cool ... they all helped us enormously."

But as the political process surrounding the law's repeal ramped up in 2010, the film began to focus on the achievements there, spotlighting the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and its executive director Aubrey Sarvis.

Bailey and Barbato say it was a challenge to turn the humble workings of an office into a thrilling storyline. No matter the stakes, videotaping people making phone calls can only be so exciting.

But for those who can get past the slightly cheesy Bondified effects and music, the political process that comes up in the second half of the film is especially interesting -- and a comprehensive look at how the repeal passed -- for those of you for those who weren't keeping up.

Apart from the anonymous service members -- who provide an interesting take on military life in the closet -- the film also features interviews with more well-known players, including former Congressman. Patrick Murphy (D-Pennsylvania), an Iraq war veteran who pushed for repeal, and three high-ranking service members discharged under the law who took their stories public.

The Strange History of Don't Ask, Don't Tell  is set to premiere on HBO twice on Sept. 20 -- once at midnight the instant the repeal goes into effect, and again that evening at primetime.

The filmmakers held a world premiere last night at the Castro Theatre.



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