David Charles Rodriguez’s new film chronicles the journey of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus who decide to tour the deep south in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. In this Tribeca Film festival Audience Award winner, chorus members confront their pasts with the church, meet residents working for change, and discover kindness and grace where they feared they would find hate. A tenor of hope arises as the liberal-city folks and the red-state locals speak, confront biases, dine and sing together. We spoke with Rodrigues about his feature debut.
GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH plays as part of the Anthem program at AFI DOCS at the Landmark E Street 1 Theater in Washington DC on Friday, June 21 and at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD on Saturday June 22. Buy tickets to the screening here.
AFI: What inspired you to pursue documentary filmmaking?
I am drawn to raw emotion and the many sides of humanity. I also enjoy being able to tell stories that are entertaining, real and have a powerful message of change behind them. Documentaries are the format that is most immediate to bringing all these elements together.
AFI: What about the story of GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH excited you? What inspired you to tell it?
After the 2016 elections, the one thing that shook me to the core wasn’t the result of the election. It was the heightened, irrational division between the people in our country. As this division grew, every community that was considered “the other” felt threatened and, as time went by, the threat became tangible through legislation, isolationism and an uptick in violence.
I’ve also been “the other” my entire life. I’m the son of an immigrant and grew up between Brazil and the US, and later lived as a Latino in San Francisco where I became an ally to the LGBTQ community. When you’re “the other” you feel the need to always do better just so you can belong. It also gives you perspective, teaches you to listen, and to be more open. Luckily, this inner-battle to feel accepted evolved into an outer-fight for equality.
When I learned about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus tour, I immediately saw a rare chance of telling an emotional story in irrational times. I saw a group of people with beautiful music and a history of activism ready to sing against all odds. Songs are the quickest way to
connect with someone. It’s a lightning bolt to the soul. Imagine 300 people who have dealt with discrimination their entire lives singing in unison. The frequency of their voices are filled with love and acceptance and a universal language echoes through everyone, no matter what you believe in.
AFI: How did you find and connect with the men’s chorus in your film?
I found the story through a news article and then my producing partner Bud Johnston reached out to the chorus, and it was love at first sight.
AFI: What was a specific hurdle you faced while making the film?
The biggest obstacle was our goal of being true to the South and also giving people there a genuine voice. We spent a lot of time filming and immersing ourselves in their world so we could shine an authentic light on the “Southern Way of living” and all its complexities without leveraging clichés or an outsider perspective.
The other obstacle was the fact that our core crew was four people and our crew on tour was 10, so we had to be very precise on which moments to focus on during the tour, as there were 300 men to film, endless daily activities and only seven days to cover it all.
AFI: What do you hope viewers take away from the doc?
When they were not singing, we were all listening to hundreds, if not thousands, of people throughout the southern states. From local LGBTQ members to every single Christian denomination to the folks at Jefferson’s Country Store in rural Alabama. Preconceived notions were challenged at every turn of this journey. As we travelled deeper into the South, a greater
depth of place opened up. The lines between conservative and liberal, faith and sexuality, red and blue started to blur. Questions began to surface: are we really living in two Americas? Can different perspectives on religion and politics build instead of divide? Is kindness enough to bring us closer? Can our human vibrations, our vibrato, become an instrument toward acceptance? If we open our ears, will our hearts follow? The hope is for GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH to raise these themes and reflections with its audience — so each voice can start a dialogue within their own community and family and, with that first note, begin to materialize a kinder, more accepting and harmonized world around them.
AFI: Why is the nation’s capital an important place to screen your film?
Our film brings humanity and hope to the divisive political climate that we are living in today. It’s important for us to open up this dialogue even further in our nation’s capitol and bring attention not only to the resurgence of faith based anti-LGBTQ laws and the oppression of all minority groups, but also to offer up inspiration to make things better.
AFI: Why do you think documentary films are critical in today’s world?
Journalism today is more and more sensationalist, one sided and has a very passive storytelling format. Documentaries are multi-faceted, dramatic, exciting, and they use the artifices of cinema, music and art to draw attention to important matters.
Buy tickets to the screening of GAY DEEP CHORUS SOUTH here.