After focusing predominantly on short film projects, director PJ Raval returns with only his second feature, Before You Know It (2013), a thoughtful documentary on growing old in the gay community. The film hooks between three elderly men in the US – Dennis from Florida, Ty from New York and Robert from Texas – with Raval centring on their individual struggles to find acceptance, liberation and fun in their silver years. The director navigates well between the three men’s lives to convey how their circumstances may be different, but they have all faced rejection from family or have witnessed friends die over the years.
Robert has the most upbeat attitude; running a bar which hosts bawdy burlesque and other entertainment, he feels that these are the years he should be enjoying. Ty lives in Harlem and helps run The SAGE Centre (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders), and is currently fighting for same-sex marriage to be legalised (a fight he and the community win). Dennis, however, is the most complex and tragic figure. For years he suppressed his desire to wear women’s clothing while he was married, but after his wife died, he started to dress as a woman around the house. He talks of his deep loneliness, the struggle to make new friends and often contemplates suicide.
Dennis’ story is the most heart-breaking; Raval reveals how there’s a tendency to focus all our efforts on the young and middle-aged. Elderly people make up a vast proportion of society (famously they are “the only people who vote”) yet we cater very little for them. However, this kind of seclusion isn’t confined to gay, bisexual or transgender men. It feels like Raval overplays how much their situations are caused by their sexualities rather than simply just being lonely. There is perhaps a greater need to address why current attitudes have ostracised these men rather than painting them as solitary heroes battling against a world which just won’t accept them.
When Raval revisits Ty after the same-sex marriage bill is passed, there’s a great urge to contextualise what it means. What is preventing other states from passing this law? Are attitudes slowly progressing across the US and how different are they in the Southern States? This would be a more fruitful examination of the real struggle facing elderly gay men – to get under the skin of how same-sex marriage has become a fierce political issue of late. Before You Know It is an emotive and considerate piece of filmmaking – it just misses out on tackling a real debate.
The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 19-30 June, 2013. For more of our EIFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.