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August 25, 2006

Gay liberation is guided by voices

Bay Area Reporter (CA):

The San Francisco Gay Mens Chorus

Why We Sing!, a new documentary about LGBT choral groups, celebrates queer life in all of its colorful and often painful glory, a testament to the power of music to uplift and to heal. It received a standing ovation at its Frameline film festival premiere this past June. Those who missed it or want to see it again will have another chance at a 7 p.m. screening and reception on Friday, August 25, at the Rainbow Room of the San Francisco LGBT Center. It bears repeat viewings.

The documentary is more than a tribute to music; it is a 30-year-plus history of queer liberation told in song, from the early days of the feminist movement through the height of the AIDS epidemic and beyond, embracing every style of music along the way: gospel, spirituals, classical, jazz, anthems of protest. It is an international cross-section of queer community, including every ethnic, racial, age and gender group imaginable.

"The overriding theme is that music can be used as a force of social change," says co-producer and writer Eric Jansen. Social change and joy. It's hard not to want to stand up and sing along when the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, swaying and clapping in time in their red choir robes and hand-decorated stoles, sings "Oh, Happy Day!" Or to sit in quiet reflection as a Cincinnati women's chorus delivers a powerful spiritual. "We don't have a message, but watch a performance and you get a message that speaks to you," says producer and director Lawrence "Bud" Dillon. "We're sharing ourselves, not telling you what to think. The big picture is love, tolerance and acceptance. We want to share this message with people who are ready for it."

So that's what they're doing. In 2004, Dillon and Jansen went to the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses [GALA] Festival VII, a choral event for LGBT groups, in Montreal. A total of 163 choruses attended; a dozen appear in the film, and four of those are featured prominently: the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, San Francisco's own transgender Transcendence Gospel Choir, Diverse Harmony youth chorus from Seattle, and Muse women's chorus from Cincinnati. The Golden Gate Men's Chorus also appears, with conductor Joseph Jennings.

Dillon and Jansen, both experienced broadcast journalists, came by their interest naturally; both have sung with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. Dillon got the idea for the film in 2000 while attending the GALA festival in San Jose. The international event draws about 6,000 singers to a different city every four years. There are estimated to be 200 GLBT choruses worldwide, featuring some 10,000 singers. "It was such an amazing event," Dillon said. "I'd never experienced anything like that. I thought, music is such an ethereal thing. You hear a song and it's gone, and all you have is the memory. I thought we had to preserve these moments to share with a larger audience."

Friday's screening has another purpose: to raise money. Like many independent films, this one was financed on credit, says Dillon, who made the film with Jansen and at least 40 volunteers, and paid camera, sound and video professionals. The total budget will top $200,000, amazingly small in the world of filmmaking, but still a tidy sum to recoup. The San Francisco filmmakers seek corporate underwriting for its planned June 2007 broadcast on PBS. Smaller donations are welcome, too, they say.

Why We Sing! already bears the imprimatur of none other than Vance Y. George, conductor emeritus of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, who has been involved with various GALA choruses since 1983. He calls it "a deeply moving film." "Every time a gay choir walks on stage, I still weep with joy and pride for the freedom it shouts out at us," George said. "Choirs, like the quilts, speak quietly, but with such strength. You cannot deny art and the healing it does for each singer and listener. Beethoven said, 'From my heart to your heart.' That message is clear in this film."

Posted by acapnews at August 25, 2006 12:06 AM