Director PJ Raval

In his latest documentary, Before You Know It, filmmaker PJ Raval explores the underrepresented topic of the twilight years of gay men. His subjects are Dennis, a widower from Florida who, in his late 70s, begins to explore his sexuality and gender identity; Ty, an advocate for LGBT seniors in Harlem; and Robert, the owner of a gay bar in Galveston, TX. The film, which screens Sunday as part of our ongoing Art of the Real series, examines the specific challenges, both personal and political, faced by LGBT seniors, as well as universal questions of love, aging, and the need for community. Raval spoke with FilmLinc Daily about his interest in this subject matter, the process of making the film, and his hope to shine a light on the challenges and joy of aging.

FilmLinc Daily: In the press release, you mentioned that you were inspired to make this film after meeting gay seniors at a screening of your last film, Trinidad. What exactly drew you to them as the subject of a film?

PJ Raval: Well, it was quite a moment because I think it was the first time I was in an environment where there was a large number of [LGBT seniors], so it was a very deeply identifiable, visible community. Which I think, at that point, I really had just not thought that much about it. There was something about the power of numbers, you know, and seeing a large group of people together that brought it to my awareness. Around the same time, I was having conversations with my mother because she was thinking about retiring, and what goes into that emotionally and financially and logistically. And I think that started me on this path of thinking about the aging process in general, and what happens when someone is in the “Golden Years” of their life.

When I started researching it, I uncovered all these statistics, like that LGBT seniors are twice as likely to live alone as their heterosexual counterparts and five times less likely to seek special services. And the more that I thought about it, I thought they were the most extreme cases of ageism and discrimination. Many of them are aging alone. They’re single, a lot of them are estranged from their family, a lot of them don’t have children, a lot need some kind of support system, just like anyone does who’s aging. So, I thought it would be a fascinating look, to use their experience as a way to meditate on the aging process and the need for community.

FD: In the film, you have three guys who had such different, diverse life experiences. How did you decide to structure the film with these three different stories?

PR: Personally, I’m not interested in making films that represent a whole community. I think that’s, actually, a pretty impossible task. I also think that’s what makes communities so great, right? That there’s so much diversity within them.

I like films that really capture a personal, intimate look at someone’s life, like a character portrait. So, I knew from the start that I wanted to do more than one person. I wanted to do several, if possible, just because I do recognize how much diversity there is within a community. I also didn’t want to choose one place because one of the things that I wanted to do with this film was shed light on and give a voice to people who are overlooked. And that’s people outside of the major “gay villages,” like San Francisco or West Hollywood or the West Village here in New York. So I wanted to choose places and people that I thought maybe the common person wouldn’t immediately associate with the gay or LGBT community. But at the same time, I didn’t really know what was going to happen, so it was all very intuitive and a little bit investigative. I thought, well, the very first thing I can do is go try to meet some people, right?

Members of SAGE march in the Harlem Pride Parade.

FD: How did you ended up finding your subjects?

PR: I discovered Rainbow Vista online, the same way that Dennis does in the film. I contacted them first and Ian Jones, who was the general manager at the time, was super inviting and I went there for a research trip with a camera, sound gear, and a friend: Mike Simpson, who ended up being the cinematographer on the film. Funny enough, the first person I met was Dennis, and immediately I thought: Oh, I should interview him and find out about what his story is. That started the whole film, to be quite honest. I was filming Dennis and I thought he was such a fascinating person. I was drawn to his continuing self-discovery, even at the age of 76. I loved the fact that at that he was out and about; he’s a real adventurer. He travels quite a bit, he’s always looking for new experiences, he’s always growing as a person, and I found that really fascinating.

So, I filmed him for about six months and then I discovered SAGE here in New York. When I was researching it, I discovered SAGE Harlem and I thought immediately that that would be an interesting look because you don’t really hear too much about gay culture in Harlem anymore and it clearly has a really vibrant history of gay culture—the Harlem Renaissance, jazz and music scenes, even down to Paris is Burning and the whole ball scene. But recently there hasn’t really been that much, at least when I started the documentary. I think it does change, too, when it becomes black culture—black or African-American, or Hispanic, Latino. It’s interesting because I think, again, that the average person, when they think of the gay community, thinks of a younger, white, West Hollywood or San Francisco kind of image. So, I loved the idea of thinking about this older, African-American LGBT community.

I went out there and I met Ty Martin and the funny thing is that Ty was supposed to introduce me to potential community members that could be subjects of the film. But upon meeting him I immediately thought, wow, Ty probably is my character here. I was really drawn to his passion for what he was doing as an advocate and an activist, but I also loved that he was wrestling with this public self as a role model and a community member while, behind closed doors, he’s grappling with being in a partnership and how to adapt to times changing. So, I started filming Ty.

I always knew that I wanted a third story. I had started filming on the coast—I was going back and forth between Florida and Portland and up in Harlem—and I kept thinking I wanted something in the middle of the country. Something that’s going to be different from a more urban or suburban environment. And I’d heard a lot about Galveston previously. Just that there were a lot of vibrant gay bars in Galveston. I’d also heard that it was largely a destination spot for those retiring. But, interesting enough, I’d also heard that there had been a large population of young people that had left because the city had been devastated by a series of hurricanes and it was becoming a more economically depressed area. So, I just thought there had to be something interesting about it.

I went down to Galveston again for a research trip and you show up in that town and say anything about a gay senior and they’re going to send you right to Robert Lafitte's to meet “Robert the Mouth,” himself. So, within 24 hours of being there I met Robert and he [immediately] said, “When do you want to talk to me? When do you want to interview me?” So, we began filming right away; it was really a crazy whirlwind.

Robert, one of the subjects of Before You Know It.

FD: Once you had all this footage, what were the challenges in the editing room, in terms of pacing and shaping a narrative?

PR: Oh, boy, yeah, editing. I really tip my hat to the editor, Kyle Henry. He’s an amazing, incredible editor and a very talented director on his own. Kyle and I have worked a lot together previously. So, from the start, Kyle was very good about getting down with the footage, looking at it, assembling – which was really helpful for me because I could see what I was getting, and I could watch it and think about what I was finding interesting about it.

As with most documentaries, you film a lot at first just to get a sense of what your story is, and then you really hone in. So, I don’t even want to know how many hours of footage we had. I know how many hard drives we had; I don’t even know the actual hours. It was really a hard process, but I knew early on for each of the characters why I was interested in them, what I was responding to, and what I thought was unique about story. But what was really great about the editing process was that we edited each character separately at first just to see what their stories were, because at first I wasn’t sure if they were going to be chapters or if they’d be intercut. But when I started assembling all the scenes, I saw these interesting connections—for instance, there are three parades in the film, but the parades are each very different experiences. Dennis’ parade is basically a coming out. Ty’s parade is a celebration of changing times, gay marriage passing, having the first Harlem pride. Whereas I think Robert’s is this idea of legacy. His parade is all about watching Mardi Gras and recognizing there’s a younger generation down at the bar who are celebrating the way that he’s done for many years. I think seeing something like that, for instance, when you’re editing – it really made me understand the significance of each of these stories.

I thought about how this film, to me, is almost like a life cycle and these three characters represent different stages of someone’s life. Dennis, since he’s in self-discovery and still figuring out his sexual identity, is very reminiscent of younger years, adolescence, of when you’re emerging into your own as an adult. Not to say that he’s not an adult, but there’s that awareness that comes from embracing your own identity. And then Ty is very much about entering into a partnership, which I think is what a lot of people do in their midlife—thinking about what you think the rest of your life is going to be and how you navigate that and set up that structure. Then Robert is about legacy and passing, that idea that he created this amazing community and how does he make sure it continues on without him. So, when we were editing, I very much had this in mind, this idea of each of them representing a different part, and that they’re allowed to have these moments that seem similar but really are significantly different, like the parades.

Subject Dennis and director PJ Raval.

FD: So, coming out of this process, what do you think are some of the greatest obstacles LGBT seniors are facing?

PR: I think there are some challenges that are just universal to aging, period. I think society at large is afraid to acknowledge the aging population because it’s a reminder that we all age. And I think in a community that reserves so much regard and power for youth, it’s a threatening situation. In fact, Dennis even says, “I think young people are afraid to look at us because we’re a reminder of what’s to come and they don’t want to think about it. So, I think there’s already an issue with people not wanting to think about it or face it because there’s a fear involved with the aging process and knowing that you’ll be in a vulnerable position or knowing that your body might not be able to keep doing what it’s doing at the moment or that you might suddenly become the person in the room that everyone starts to ignore.

I think what society needs to do with that is embrace it and really look at the advantages of it: that these people have lived amazing lives and have so much knowledge and experience behind them and that we have a lot to learn from them. There needs to be a lot of support for young people because they’re in a vulnerable position. But it’s also true at the other end of the spectrum. We need to have a support system for the aging population like the services provieded by SAGE and other social organizations.

Specifically to LGBT seniors, I think that there are a lot of challenges that these seniors are facing. If you look at Rainbow Vista, a lot of them are single, a lot of them didn’t marry, don’t have partners, their families are somewhat estranged now, or their children maybe aren’t as present. So even just the everyday living is challenging and I think that’s why places like Rainbow Vista are great, because they do feel comfortable there and I think some of them might not feel comfortable in non-LGBT living facilities because there’s a fear that they’ll feel mistreated or they’ll be discriminated against. But then, obviously, in places like New York that’s a really hard thing to do, so thankfully there are services like SAGE, which allow support systems to exist for these seniors. And then in Galveston just having a community space, even if it’s a bar, I think is great.

FD: Overall, what do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

PR: I hope that audiences understand that, even though we’re looking at three gay seniors who are extreme examples of ageism and discrimination, that aging doesn’t discriminate and it is something that happens to all of us and I think it’s something that should be embraced. I hope that with this film, audiences really connect with the three characters and see themselves in them, because I see myself in them in different aspects. I think most audiences are surprised by how much they have in common with them, and I think that's because the aging process is universal and understanding who you are and adapting to the changing times and discovering yourself continues to happen, even when you’re 80. There’s something really hopeful about that. So, even though I think there’s this general idea of aging as a sensitive topic, I would love for audiences to watch this film and come out of it with hope. Life is great, even at 80. There’s still a lot to live, and these seniors are living it well into their golden years.

Before You Know It screens Sunday, June 23 as part of Film Society of Lincoln Center's ongoing documentary series Art of the Real.