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a montage of hurt souls joyfully sharing their story
It is now more than half a century since landmark gay rights crusader Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office. Over that time, there have been many milestone films about the LGBTI journey, several earning Oscar glory. With seismic shifts to same-sex marriage equality across many parts of the world, what more can film say about the rights of the 'alphabet community' at this time? The joyful, sensitive, and illuminating Australian documentary The Coming Back Out Ball Movie (2018) shows there is still much to be done.
Based on research into isolation and loneliness endemic among elderly populations, social transformation artists Tristan Meecham and Bec Reid set about staging a spectacular ball for elders of the LGBTI community. The documentary records the project from inception to event, held in the grand Melbourne Town Hall in October 2017. It was a complex undertaking because so many elders 'came out' when younger but have since retreated into the closet as they encountered new forms of discrimination from the community and the aged services sector. The later stage of the project coincided with the national Plebiscite on Marriage Equality that intensified trauma within the wider gay community.
In the year leading to the Ball, various initiatives were launched to lure the elders out of hiding, such as a monthly LGBTI Elders Dance Club. A series of dance lesson scenes provide narrative continuity with flashbacks showing an elder's personal story of transition and retreat. The film explains the special cultural significance of dance within the LGBTI community and shows the project team investing a huge amount time and effort into engaging isolated elders.
This is a film of many strengths. Perhaps foremost is the humility and compassion that is shown by the project team towards a hidden group of Australians, and the total absence of a finger-wagging social change polemic. By focusing on the unique personal story of several individual elders, the film creates a montage of hurt souls joyfully welcoming the opportunity to share their story. As project leader Meecham explains, the event and its prequel are a gift to the elder community in recognition of their ground-breaking advocacy for human rights in the 60s and 70s.
This film is a reminder of what high-integrity documentaries can achieve. It is not alone in the current gay cinema space, with two other fine feature films putting the spotlight on still-legal church-inspired gay conversion camps (Boy Erasedand The Mis-Education of Cameron Post). The Coming Back Out Ball Movieis a heart-warming, uplifting film, full of humour and humanity. It is impossible to see it and not be moved.
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