Small Town Gay Bar (Director: Malcolm Ingram, USA, 2006): This film was part of the June 2007 release from Ironweed Film Club, and features two short films as well that I haven’t yet watched. I missed this when it played originally at this year’s Inside Out festival, so was glad to see it on DVD so soon.
While my own experience with gay bars has been pretty limited, I understand that they serve a vital social function within the community, serving as sanctuaries from a world that is very often hostile to gay people. The situation is even more dire in the rural South, where prejudice has been tolerated and even encouraged for a long time. This small film keeps its focus tightly on a very specific area, northeastern Mississippi, and on the patrons of a bar called Rumors, located in tiny Shannon, population 1,726. In rural communities where everyone knows everyone else, it’s not unusual for gay people to stay “in the closet” and so the bar becomes the only place where they can actually be themselves. However, since Mississippi is in the middle of the “Bible Belt,” the bars are often targetted by conservative church groups and forced out of business. Part of the film covers the history of gay bars in this part of the state, and Crossroads, once located in larger Meridian (pop. 39,000), seemed to be just the sort of place that conservatives would want to close. As one former patron put it, the sense of desperation was so strong that it became a sort of circus, a place where “anything went” and so local law enforcement found a way to close it. Happily, this same former patron bought the property and reopened it as a much more congenial place, recognizing that people were being forced to drive several hours to Memphis for lack of a local place to go. I found myself reminded very much of British pub culture while watching the film, where the bar is not only a place to drink and meet romantic partners, but a hub of information and a surrogate family. Ingram’s film does a great job of capturing a sense of place and of the very unique people who populate it.
Perhaps the only weakness I found in the film was in its choice of counter-voices. Reverend Fred Phelps (of GodHatesFags.com fame) was born in Meridian, so I can see why the filmmaker wanted to feature him, but giving this nutbag so much screen time was unnecessary. Ingram also interviewed Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association, another extreme organization with their headquarters in nearby Tupelo. While this generated lots of sparks, I was rather hoping to hear more from local regular people and even local pastors instead of people whom the majority of Americans would view as raving lunatics. As well, it would have been interesting to hear why the patrons of Rumors and the other bars haven’t just given up and moved to larger cities where they could live more openly.
As a side note, I was intrigued when I heard so many Toronto bands on the soundtrack (Metric, The Hidden Cameras, Broken Social Scene) and guessed, rightfully, that director Malcolm Ingram was indeed from Toronto. I’d love to hear what drew him so far from home to tell this story.