SXSW FILM 2013
By Don Simpson | March 25, 2013
Director: PJ Raval
PJ Raval’s observational documentary Before You Know It immerses itself into the lives of three gay men who are navigating their golden years. These three men have wrestled with their sexual identity at different stages of their lives, now they must also face the facts of an aging life. For whatever reason, it is believed that the LGBT community never ages; once they pass a certain age, they just seem to disappear from society’s consciousness. Because of this, the seniors of the LGBT community are lacking in a reliable support structure. It also does not help that for a majority of their lives, same-sex relationships have not been recognized by the federal and state governments as legally-binding. So, I guess its not very surprising statistic that such a high rate of LGBT seniors live alone.
Raval’s three subjects — Dennis, Ty and Robert — must discover their own networks for acceptance in order to have people with whom to share their lives. These men could not be more different, and that is precisely the point. Raval presents us with a late bloomer (Dennis), a LGBT activity (Ty) and a flamboyant bar owner (Robert).
Dennis might have had an affinity for dressing in women’s clothing prior to his wife’s death, but it was not until after his wife died that he chose to pursue a gay lifestyle. He was in his 70s at the time, though he has never quite felt comfortable coming out of the closet out of fear that his remaining family would disown him. It is not until he spends his first summer at Rainbow Vista, a LGBT senior living facility in Oregon, that Dennis begins to explore — albeit quite tentatively — his burgeoning identity. From there, Dennis begins to take gay Caribbean cruises and becomes more and more comfortable with his cross-dressing alter-ego, “Dee.”
Ty understands the importance of support and acceptance, especially for gay seniors, as he leads the Harlem division of SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders). While Ty has been comfortable with his sexuality for a long time, he resides in Harlem where he has never felt accepted enough to flaunt his identity. That is the purpose of SAGE — to create a safe space for gay seniors to openly discuss their sexuality with peers. As we follow Ty’s story, New York is on the cusp of legalizing same-sex marriage; something that was unheard of when Ty was growing up. This is when Ty realizes that the world may have changed enough to bring SAGE out to the streets of Harlem. The only thing that would make Ty happier than being accepted in his own neighborhood is the possibility of getting married to his longtime partner, Stanton.
Robert is the owner of Robert’s Laffite, a gay bar in Galveston that is known for its drag queen performances. (Robert’s performance to Piero Umiliani’s “Mah Nà Mah Nà” is one that will forever be emblazoned upon my mind.) Vocal about his sexuality since a very early age, when he was labeled a “sissy,” Robert strives to create a safe place for the local LGBT community to hang out and have fun. Robert’s Laffite is a long-standing institution in Galveston, yet a serious legal situation threatens its future and takes a tole on Robert’s health.
While all three subjects take us on their own unique emotional rollercoasters, it is Dennis’ story that affects me the most. Raval and cinematographer Mike Simpson do such a brilliant job of capturing Dennis’ loneliness. Dennis seems like such a meek and quiet person, yet he has such a riveting presence in front of the camera. At times I was really staving off the tears, while other times I felt so happy for Dennis.
Everyone will be able to discover their own favorite, because Raval — with the assistance of the masterful editing of Kyle Henry — does such a tremendous job at balancing the three stories. Patience is the true virtue of the editing structure, as we spend an admirable amount of time with each subject before cutting to the next. This narrative approach gives the audience more of a chance to establish emotional attachments with each of the subjects. First and foremost, Raval is able to capture extremely pivotal moments in the lives of his three subjects.
When attempting to capture reality, before you know it the moment is gone. So, for a film like Before You Know It, timing is everything. Raval is clearly a very lucky guy, considering some of the priceless moments that he is able to capture on film. (Yes, parts of Before You Know It were actually shot on film.)