Last night, PJ and I watched Out of the South, a documentary about a group of gay men who were born and raised in the South and who have started new lives in Los Angeles as adults. Here’s the trailer:

I should start by admitting up front that we’re friends with the writer, producer, and director of this film, Jason Ball. Furthermore, PJ and I talked at some length with Jason about this project when he was just starting to work on it. It’s obviously a little difficult and weird to review a friend’s work, but I’ll give it a go nevertheless. I’ll try to be as objective as possible in my review, though I understand that objectivity is especially difficult in this case.

Even though Jason is a friend, I think I would have loved this documentary even if I didn’t know him. It’s fun, interesting, and insightful. The film’s goal is to explore these men’s visions of the South, which often seem romanticized, and their reasons for leaving it (whether they’ve romanticize it or not). The set up is that Jason and his partner Troy host a Sunday dinner in which they and their guests make dinner and then talk around the table. Jason then also interviews each of the guests to probe a little further into their stories. These conversations end up covering such issues as religion, rural prejudices, relationships with parents and grandparents, and the joys and difficulties of growing up in the South. They also talk a little bit about what it’s like living in LA.

What I like most about this film is Jason’s interviewing style. It seems to come naturally to him. He gets his subjects to talk openly and freely about their lives and experiences, something that surely must have been difficult for some of them. Shane, one of the guests at the dinner (and my favorite — if it’s not too weird to call someone in a documentary your “favorite” — of Jason’s friends), seems to have a relatively easy and close relationship with his parents, who quickly accepted their son’s orientation. Other friends haven’t had such an easy time with their families, and one of the guests had only recently come out to his parents. One of the men had even been the victim of a violent gay bashing as a kid. This range of experiences seems to capture the range of the South’s good and negative qualities (the South as the heaven of hospitality or the South as homophobic hell). Jason interviews his friends with sensitivity and intelligence and somehow manages to be a part of the conversation without seeming at all intrusive.

I also liked the documentary’s editing, direction, and soundtrack, none of which seemed too complicated or showy. I think all the elements of the film coheres nicely. My only complaint about the film is that I wanted it to be longer. As you get to know these men a little and you become more and more interested in their stories, it kind of feels like they’re guests in your own home. It then feels disappointing when they leave. But like all parties, this one has to end (but I feel like this one ends too soon).

This documentary ultimately seems very true to me. I grew up in Southeast Texas, which isn’t really “the South” in many ways, but I nevertheless feel that my story is very much like the men in this film. The fundamentalist religion in which I was raised taught me that being gay was wrong and that I should loathe myself and be ashamed of my feelings. It has taken me years to even begin to overcome these feelings of inadequacy and shame. I love my parents dearly, but our relationship is nevertheless strained by their continued faith in these fundamentalist beliefs. They’re never going to treat me and PJ the same as they treat my sister and her husband of a-year-and-half despite the fact that we’ve been together for twelve years. The similarity I see in my experience and the men in the film obviously predisposes me to liking the documentary. How can I not think that its themes and issues are common ones for gay men who grew up in the South?

It’s especially interesting it is to see this movie having been a part of the conversations with Jason a couple of years ago when he was just starting it. It’s a little like watching one of our friends’ kids grow up. I’ve known Jason for almost as long as I’ve known PJ, since he was one of the first of PJ’s Arkansas friends to visit Knoxville after PJ and I met and was the first that PJ and I then visited together. My favorite Jason story is about a night PJ and I spent with him in his Memphis apartment. Since PJ’s family was in Arkansas and mine was in Texas, we decided to stop over on our ways home. (We were just friends at that point, and so I was dropping him off in Little Rock before driving on to Texas.)

Jason was the first person I ever knew with a downtown apartment in a city. I have to say I was very impressed. I quickly came to love Memphis as we ended up stopping there again a couple of times before Jason and Troy moved to Miami. Anyway, we were spending the night in Jason’s apartment. Since PJ and Jason were friends, they shared Jason’s bedroom, and I slept on the couch. There were just two problems with this. First, PJ and I had an unspoken interest in one another, so I was more than a little jealous that he was sleeping in someone else’s bed — no matter how chastely. But more importantly, sleeping on the couch meant that I was victimized by a cat who was in heat. (I think she belonged to Jason’s roommate or something like that). She literally kept trying to rape me off and on all night long. She would meow and caterwaul and then rub herself against me — especially my face. It was like she was screaming at me, “Here, smell my twat!” It was so terrible — I spent the night being jealous and raped all at the same time! (I can’t help but crack up laughing whenever I think about it now, but at the time it was the worst night of my life!)

I survived the night, and I’ve gotten to know Jason and Troy a little better over the years. We later visited them in Miami and then we met up in San Francisco a couple of years ago for a fun little vacation. Someday we’ll get around to visiting them in LA. (We’d suggest they visit us here in Athens, but, since there’s absolutely nothing to do here except go hiking, we’re not sure that’s a good way to maintain the friendship!)

Anyway, friendship aside, I really enjoyed this documentary. It’s really well done, and it has something important to say. Too many gay feature films only show cartoonish images of gay men — we’re either whores or prudes. I really like that this film just shows what life is like for some gay men. No cartoons. No exaggerations one way or the other. Just some friends sitting around talking about a background that they have in common.

I definitely recommend making a pitcher of sweet tea and frying up some okra and then watching this documentary. I loved it.