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Filmmaker's Forum: Stephen Silha On His 'Joy'-ful Doc About Legendary Queer Poet and Filmmaker James Broughton

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by Stephen Silha
March 19, 2014 1:37 PM
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"Big Joy"

This is part of a series of first person posts in which we provide a forum for filmmakers and other artists to discuss their process, their influences and/or their experiences showing their work. In this edition, Stephen Silha talks about "Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton," the documentary he co-directed on the  queer poet and filmmaker.

As I poise for our New York theatrical screenings this coming weekend, I can’t help reflecting on the strange and wonderful journey that brought me here.  And what Big Joy can mean to LGBT people and their allies as we move into a new era.  I feel that this film is a gift from the LGBT community to the culture at large. 

When I met James Broughton at a Radical Faerie Gathering in 1989, it was like a door opening in my soul. Here was a master of images and words, who was also sexy and 75 and surrounded by beautiful young admirers. What can I learn from/with this guy?

It was my pleasure to connect regularly with James and Joel Singer, his adoring soul mate, during the 10 years before James died. James became a mentor, and we went on “writing retreats” together, visiting the ocean, the mountains, and the wine country of Washington State. His death (which I witnessed) was transcendent for me. He carried around a snakeskin all day to remind himself that he was just shedding a skin. He listened to his poetry put to music by the Chilean singer-songwriter Ludar, and music by his friend Lou Harrison. He drank champagne and praised his life adventures. His last words: “Praise and thanks. And more bubbly, please.” 

Who doesn’t want to be able to express their deepest longings, their wildest dreams, their human confusion? James seemed wired into this. His poetry embraces “Yes and No singing together.”

At first, I thought I would write a biography, as I’ve spent much of my life writing.  But there’s no way you could adequately get across this guy’s voice and visions adequately without film.  He made his first experimental film in 1946, and even though he won a special award at Cannes in the 50’s from Jean Cocteau, his visionary films had little commercial success in the U.S.  I think he’s little known because he straddled so many worlds, and never fit neatly into them.  Is he a poet or a filmmaker?  Is he straight or gay? Male or female? Is he wealthy or poor?  All of the above.

Making BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton caused me to probe much more deeply into Broughton’s early life.  And we were fortunate that he journaled from age 13 until he died, so we got the artist’s inner voice.  I took the Artist’s Way course – a kind of guide to opening your creativity, or as Broughton would say, “follow your own weird” – while the film was in production, which helped me to take the leap from words on paper to images, music, and different kinds of storytelling.  I journaled a lot, too.

I got depressed.  Would we ever finish?  Could we raise enough money? Are we doing justice to his work, and being honest about his humanity?  My much more experienced co-director Eric Slade and I lost sleep over whether we were getting the story right, and at the same time being true to our own weirds.  Actually, inviting our whole team to follow their weird made the film much more strong, creative, and true to the spirit of our subject.

Now, 35 festivals later, we are rejoicing that the film works: after seeing it, people tell us they’re inspired to write the poem they’ve always wanted to write, make the film they’ve wanted to make, or dance the dance they never dared.

And, in this world of hybrid distribution, we are doing our own theatrical distribution, starting this month in New York City, but concentrating on a broad release in June for Gay Pride, when our DVD and Video on Demand will be available through our new partner Kino Lorber.  It’s scary, and thrilling!

Watch the trailer below:

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