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Interview with Abigail Child, Director of On the Downlow

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Click here to learn more about On the Downlow and to view clips of the movie.

Q: How did you get your start in filmmaking?

A: In college and graduate school, I did documentary filmmaking [Radcliffe College, then Yale University] … Later I became interested in experimental filmmaking … B/Side was a return to documentary …

Who were your mentors?

A: There were not many mentors for me … I was originally a lefty documentarian, but that was probably the most mentoring quality … the avant-garde was a community, too, as was the Collective for Living Cinema … Joan Didion has written that if you’re small and a woman, you’re not threatening and people will open up. It’s true!

Q: What inspired you to make this film?

A: On the Downlow was a commission … I visited and shot footage in Cleveland in 2003 and made a short about the subject titled, The Party … At the party, there were about 200 people there, 95 percent were black, most were gay and bisexual. I was seeing a swathe of the gay black scene in Cleveland … Eventually I received initial funding for the feature documentary and went back in 2005. Arthur Jafa [Daughters of the Dust and Crooklyn] knew my work and came onboard.

Q: What surprised you about the men you met?

A: They all surprised me in different ways. Tony’s experience in jail was intense, something imagined from fiction, but harder to hear right there in front of you. Ray, who appeared as a young thug, surprised me by going for femmes [drag queens or femme queens] altogether, being desirous of men even if he liked the “pretty face.” Billy’s surprise was his comment that the “best sex was with my baby mama” [mother of his children]. He lives with an older black man. Kerwin’s surprise: a secret girlfriend “Tanya” that we didn’t know about. It came out when he spoke to Robin at the lake. This is the first documentary on the DL.

Q: The men in this film seem to have a private and public self.

To do a film on Downlow or DL is an oxymoron, a contradiction of terms: how to bring out what is underground. It seems there is the private life lived in a semi-public scene: at parties, on the web, at clubs.

It is as Billy maintains: “Contrary to popular belief, being gay is not something you can turn on and turn off when you feel like, as far as the motions go and what you actually like. Now the way that you present yourself is something different, you may present yourself as a thug or present yourself as somebody who’s on the DL or present yourself as a drag queen, or somebody who is way out there, the way you present it, you can turn on and turn off changes, or modes or what you want it to be, but the actual feeling, NO.”

I take it that he means there is a public front that may or may not jive with the private. This is a powerful observation and in a doc, particularly relevant.

I’m interested in the front (the public) and how that is put on and what is going on in private, internally.

Q: Some authors have claimed that being on the Downlow has contributed to AIDS. What’s your take?

In terms of statistics: recent studies have dispelled many myths about the Downlow and controverted some of the previous published statements: a third of Downlow men identify themselves as gay; over 80 percent have links to the gay community.

A better explanation of the AIDS crisis spread among the black female population (and even this increase is debated) might be the fact that blacks disproportionately outnumber whites in prison (in Cleveland, approximately 50 percent of African-American men between the ages of 18–29 are either incarcerated or on probation)—and once they come out, they go back to their wives and girlfriends, often not telling what happened to them in prison and not using condoms at home. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one-third of young urban black men who have sex with men in this country are HIV positive and 90 percent of those are unaware of their infection.

We hear about this epidemic often in alarmist tones, but not so much about a solution. Whether the cause is DL behavior or, as is more likely, the deeper socio-political-economic facts of poverty and prison in the U.S., what has not been faced among the black community is homosexuality. Discussion has proven remarkably difficult, whether in churches, organizations, inner-city schools, or among friends.

As an increasing number of black men who have sex only with men identity themselves as DL, preferring the masculinity of the term instead of gay, there is a further complication of group identity. And as DL culture expands, it has become an open secret. For many men on the Downlow, the DL label is not only an announcement of masculinity and a separation from white gay culture; it is a kind of family to which they can belong. There is the important sense that they don’t risk losing their ties to family, friends, jobs, and black culture. As one young man maintains: “We’re black anyway, that’s one strike against us.”

Q: What are some of the challenges you face in documentary filmmaking?

When the camera is turned off, people change the way they use their body. They stop presenting.

I am interested in that moment when another persona comes on scene—the multiplicities of what is “truth,” the faceted nature of the real as seen from different viewpoints, different contexts, different rationales.

I would love to go back to Cleveland and do a “7 Up” type series [reference to Up series of seven documentary films by Michael Apted] on these men. Say, come back in a year and then five years. I would hope to make a piece more vérité, assuming the men would let me have access. I think it could be stupendous—a kind of long-term observation of downlow/sexual practice over time.

Q: Was interviewing drag queens ever an option?

We did, but it seemed to be a whole other topic in itself …

Q: What was the most challenging part for you?

Just finding the men … and finding people who were willing to be in it … There are hidden realities we didn’t see. There is still a lot of mystery with this topic …

Q: There is a moving scene when Kerwin comes out to his Dad. How common is this in the DL community?

It’s hard to tell …

Q: What advice would you give for aspiring women filmmakers?

A: Look for a mentor … Filmmaking is hard! You can be successful, but it can be hard to get funding. Movies are a passion, an addiction. It’s the most rewarding … you come up against your limits … when you can make it come alive, it’s amazing!



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