Film Review: “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like”
Finally an ex-gay documentary that's not simply a collection of interviews about the past, but one that's centered around a compelling event and story as it's unfolding.
August 29th, 2011
In 2005, 16 year old Zach Stark was sent by his parents, against his will, to the residential ex-gay program Love In Action. Protests and nationwide attention ensued. It was probably the biggest ex-gay news story since Exodus board member/spokesman John Paulk was caught in a Washington DC gay bar.
Local filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox was there from the start of the protests, capturing it all and has spent the last six years creating his finished product of This Is What Love In Action Looks Like, a new independent film currently on the festival circuit.
I’ve spent years writing for various websites that track and monitor ex-gay issues, and in that time I’ve reviewed a number of films about the ex-gay experience. Too often documentaries consist mainly of head-and-shoulder interviewees talking about their time in ex-gay programs years, if not decades, in the past. This Is What Love In Action Looks Like is different, filmmaker Fox was there shooting events as they unfolded and shooting interviews with key players while memories and feelings are still fresh. The finished product is stitched together to tell the story with a logical flow and progression which will allow the general public, unknowledgeable of ex-gay issues, to follow the story.
Head-and-shoulders interviews, a necessary evil, are used sparingly and effectively. Those scenes are well composed and often set in locations more far dynamic than a subject’s living room sofa. Keystone interviews are even shot with multiple cameras allowing Fox to cut to tight zooms at appropriately intense moments.
Fox scored some rather crucial interviews, Zach Stark (the 16 year old sent to the program) as well as John Smid (ran Love In Action while Zach was there and has since stepped down). Since the controversy in 2005 Smid’s views have changed (I won’t reveal how) and shows incredible courage for making himself as open, honest and vulnerable as he does during his interviews. However I must criticize Fox for not asking Smid challenging questions. In fact the only person Fox challenges is an anti-gay Alliance Defense Fund lawyer during a sidewalk press conference. There are a lot of difficult questions interviewers can ask of the ex-gay movement, and Fox fails in this respect.
Zach’s father (who sent him to the program) and Alan Chambers (president of Exodus, a national gay group) declined interviews and so their stories are told with extensive incorporation of broadcast TV footage. The other footage that most contributes to the uniqueness of the film are some very raw feeling shots of the actual street protests outside Love In Action’s facility in 2005.
The film opens with a satisfyingly long interview of Zach talking about coming out to his parents and preparing to be sent off to the program. As the story and protests unfolded Zach’s life inside the program remained a total mystery to the gay community outside protesting. Fox smartly replicates this feeling by focusing on other details and choosing only to show Zach with long-lens and grainy footage, as if we the film viewer are with protesters on the sidewalk seeing Zach from afar, wondering what is happening to the young man in the program.
My biggest gripe is that when the film is concluding Zach’s “after” interview is frustratingly short. Zach comes across as having grown into a beautiful, vibrant young man. After becoming invested in the activists who held a daily vigil outside Love In Action protesting for Zach I don’t feel enough emotional payoff in Fox’s interview with Zach. I would strongly encourage Fox to revisit his source footage and include more meaningful and satisfying moments in that final interview. (Author’s note: Fox was kind enough to respond to this issue after my review was first posted, see his quote at the bottom of the post)
My remaining criticisms of the film are somewhat minor so I’ll list them here at the end:
- While I adore the MySpace inspired title graphics, graphic styles throughout the body of the film are wildly inconsistent. Some TV footage is shown in a “streaming internet video” style border, while other footage is shown full screen, sometimes that footage is full color, other times it has a tone/filter applied. Also printed material (copies of ex-gay program rules and such) shown on screen has no stylistic consistency.
- Insufficient disclosure of people appearing on screen who are involved in the film’s production. When filmmaker Fox appears on screen his title is simply “filmmaker” which I’m not sure all viewers will take to mean his is the filmmaker for this very film. Also Peterson Toscano has a producer credit for the film but this is not disclosed at all with on screen titling.
- A couple soundtrack selections are hit or miss during the first half. The worst tracks sounded like a wind up music box composition from royalty free music websites. As the movie progresses however the music selection greatly improves and begins to compliment the emotion of the film.
- There are a few instances at the beginning of the film where former clients of Love In Action are dropping bombs about the program. Insufficient time is left after these things are said for the emotional impact to settle properly.
But the above listed criticism have no effect on my recommendation to see the film, they are more for Fox’s benefit should the movie hopefully be picked up by a distributor and is re-cut for distribution as independent films regularly are. The novelness of this film sets it apart from every ex-gay documentary done before it. When this screens in your city I strongly suggest you go and support it.
Filmmaker Fox addressed my criticism of Zach’s seemingly brief interview segment via email the afternoon my review was posted:
When we approached Zach about the interview he made it clear that he was willing to tell his story about what happened during the months that he was in Refuge and during the media firestorm, mostly to lend his account of that, and leave it to rest.
[Fox continued...] So when he requested that his current life not be pried into or pondered over or talked about, I completely understood. He wants his privacy now. Zach is a private person who quite accidentally fell into a huge spotlight and I mostly wanted to document the events of 2005 and how friends of his felt it necessary to stand up and try and make a difference, attempt to help one of their peers. I never felt it was my job to pry to pull things from Zach story and I think it took a lot of courage for him to speak out at all and I’m very grateful he lent his version of the events of that Summer of 2005.
“Love In Action” Ex-Gay Documentary Premieres Next Month
May 3rd, 2011
In June 2005, sixteen-year-old Zach Stark announced on his MySpace blog that his parents were sending him away to an ex-gay youth program after he came out to them. He also posted the program’s rules that he would be forced to live under while locked away in the “therapy” program. The rules were shocking: no contact with the outside world, no diaries or journals, shirts must be worn at all times (including while sleeping), no computer access, no television or radio, no reading materials except those provided by the staff. Thanks to Zach’s blog posts before entering Memphis-based Love In Action, the Exodus-afiliated program became the focus of worldwide controversy and daily protests. “Love In Action” was investigated by the state of Tennessee for child abuse and for operating a separate unliscenced drug and alcohol treatment program. Love In Action eventually settled with the state and shut down their youth program.
Memphis-based documentary filmmaker Morgan Fox began working on a documentary about Love In Action, beginning with Zach’s forced commitment into the program. In 2008, a trailer was released in which Fox caught up with Zach who described his ordeal. But deadlines came and went, and the long-awaited documentary was never released.
Until now. The premiere of This Is What Love in Action Looks Like will take place next month at Frameline 35, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival which will be held from June 16 to 26. The documentary features interviews with Zach, then-LIA director John Smid, other former ex-gay leaders and former LIA clients. Some of those former clients spoke out at a 2008 ex-gay survivors meet-up held in Memphis that was hosted by former LIA client Peterson Toscano. (I spoke with one LIA survivor here.)
The documentary’s showtime is not yet available. Here is the film’s trailer:
Whatever Happened to Zach?
May 5th, 2008
He’s back, and he talked to Morgan Jon Fox for his forthcoming documentary, “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like.”
Zach was the sixteen-year-old gay teen who, in 2005, gained worldwide attention when he wrote on his MySpace blog about coming out to his parents. They quickly shipped him off to Love Won Out’s Refuge program for teens. But before entering the program, Zach posted Love In Action’s rules online for everyone to see, and those rules provide a very revealing glimpse into the very strange world of Love In Action. After weeks of protest and worldwide condemnation, the Refuge program was finally shut down. But Love In Action remains active, a dark stain on an ex-gay movement running amok with no oversight or accountability.
Here’s an extended opening sequence for the documentary, which is set to for an official release later this summer. Zach’s post-LIA appearance at the seven minute mark represents a small glimpse of a full-length exclusive interview.