Daniel Karslake spoke with Solzy at the Movies about For They Know Not What They Do, which just started its run in virtual cinemas on June 12.
For They Know Not What They Do opened in virtual cinemas over the weekend. In an ideal world, the documentary would be screening in physical theaters. How excited are you about getting the film out there for a wider audience?
Daniel Karslake: I’m extremely excited to get it out there. We premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and we spent the rest of the year doing film festivals, both in the US and then around the world. We had this plan to go into theaters in June and obviously, this thing called COVID-19 happened to the globe and now we’re in virtual theaters. Honestly, I mean, yes, I would have loved a theatrical premiere and to have a theatrical run. But I also love that we have this opportunity—first of all—to help GLAAD and PFLAG. We partnered with both organizations so those organizations had a week of sneak previews. Anyone who watched the film through those seven days, when they rented the film, a certain amount of the ticket price went back to both charities because this is a very difficult time for people to raise money for their charities and we believe in both of those organizations. To be in on the virtual cinema platforms of more than 70 theaters around the country, many of them wouldn’t been where For They Know Not What They Do would have been playing. But again, these theaters are closed and really hurting. I mean, art house theaters are hurting when there’s no virus. It’s hard to keep those businesses going right. Many of them are non-profit because of that. But I do really love and everybody on the team really loves that now when people rent the film, they can help their local art house theater as well.
Was having the release planned for the fourth anniversary of the Pulse shooting intentional or merely a coincidence?
Daniel Karslake: To be totally honest, it was a kind of a horrifying coincidence. We had actually chosen June 5. Honestly, I didn’t even plan initially to have a Pulse. I didn’t think Vico’s story was going to include his Pulse experience because I was so worried about—it’s such a sensitive topic. What I loved about Vico’s story was that his parents, his Latinx family, are the family in the movie that are the immediate, unconditional love story in the film, and that’s not something we ever see in press and media in the US. The US media is so invested in sort of macho Latin men that we mostly see this homophobic side but I loved Vico’s parents and I thought it was so powerful. Ultimately, I realized when I was traveling around the country and just talking to people about Pulse, they were forgetting what Pulse was. There had been so many shootings since Pulse. People would say like, Pulse—was that the one in Las Vegas or which one was that again? And that really bothered me. I went back to Vico and his family and they were gracious. We decided that if we could do it well, we would do it.
Fast forward, the movie is done, we’re going through everything. And you’re going through all the planning and we pick we centered on June 5, but then we read that the Tribeca Film Festival this year along with Cannes and all these other huge festivals, which were all canceled, decided to do a big online worldwide film festival for May 29 to June 7. I just said on a call to First Run Features, our distributor, we were talking about it. I said, Well, let’s just move it to the 12th then, and everyone went, Okay, fine. We hired our publicist and they started doing publicity. I think about a week later, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, Oh, my G-d, wait a minute, was Pulse on the 12th or the 14th? Ah! I looked, and it was the 12th. Things were so far along and I don’t know, it just didn’t seem—then I thought, well, maybe this is what’s supposed to happen as long as we don’t market the premiere. Don’t say premiering on the fourth anniversary of Pulse, For They Know Not What They Do. We were very specific that we actually generally don’t talk about the Pulse part of the film at all anyway. That’s one of our sort of requests of media, especially of reviewers. We found that it’s getting talked about a lot anyway and that’s to be expected. But to answer your question, not make this answer too long, it was not, at first purposeful when we realized and we thought a lot about it. I spoke to Vico to see how he felt about it and we ultimately obviously decided for it.
The documentary held its world premiere during Tribeca last year. In retrospect, are you glad to have premiered the film last year rather than this year?
Daniel Karslake: Oh, sure. I mean, our world premiere was Tribeca, our international premiere was in Hong Kong. We’ve had these amazing experiences at festivals all over the world. I’m so sad for all these filmmakers whose films are emerging this year. It’s very unclear when they’ll be able to be in a theater while people are watching their films. Movies are most widely now watched online. I understand why that is and technology has changed but I still contend that most films, including and especially ours, are much more powerful in a group setting where everyone is having an experience at the same time. I’m very grateful that the movie had its festival run when it did. We’ve had just amazing things happen in Europe with the movie in countries where homosexuality is being virtually outlawed. In Poland and other places, the movie has really been embraced in a powerful way. I’m very, very happy with the timing.
Honestly, second to the Pulse coincidence, we also very mightily considered putting off the premiere once everything started happening around the George Floyd death and then this emerging reality that people were finally starting to understand what it was to be Black in America and how that feels and how to be a people of color in a country that all the laws and everything has been controlled by white straight men. We considered changing and moving the premiere back because of that as well. But then we realized that, the LGBTQ movement in America at least started with protests and riots led by people of color. The movie is about equality and has a number of characters who are in those communities and in the third act has a pretty detailed discussion about what’s going on with trans women of color, especially being murdered more every year. We ultimately decided to move forward.
Truthfully, it feels like as it has felt with all of my films that the movie is actually coming out at the absolute perfect time because of all this intersectionality of all of these oppressions. I used to work at something called the Peace Development Fund with a colleague who would talk about the hierarchy of oppression and that the great myth is that there’s this hierarchy of oppression that one oppression is worse than the other. The truth is that all oppressions are worse or bad for everyone especially the people who are not “the oppressed people.” It’s just an interesting conversation. Now, as someone who lives in Berlin—I’m an American who lives in Berlin. It’s been very interesting to watch and very heartening to watch America kind of waking up to all this right now. I’m super proud to have our film in theaters and very happy to see what’s going on.
I’m an Orthodox Jewish transgender woman myself. One of the things I liked about the film is that it focuses on the intersection of religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. In making this film, what were you looking to do that was different than For The Bible Tells Me So?
Daniel Karslake: Well, I’m really proud of For The Bible Tells Me So. It’s had an amazing life. It’s in 24 languages now. It keeps getting translated into more languages—that’s awesome and great. But I missed a lot of stuff in For The Bible Tells Me So mostly because of the time in which it was made. We made that film between 2003 and 2007. A lot has happened politically, socially since For The Bible Tells Me So. One of the big things we missed in that film was any discussion about of parents of faith who have transgender kids. That’s a really big deal. I very much wanted to explore that and what that looked like especially since I saw conservative Christianity really targeting trans people more and more in the last couple of years since the last election. That was something I really wanted to look at. I also wanted to discuss something we mentioned briefly in For The Bible Tells Me So and that’s conversion therapy. Exodus International, which was and had been the largest international conversion therapy ministry in the world, closed its doors in 2013. In its place, two other conversion therapy ministries have grown up and there’s more conversion therapy now than before. I really wanted to tackle that. And then finally, this movement in America called the religious freedom movement has really taken control in America and—until Monday—was winning every Supreme Court battle and it was just a very scary thing to me. I didn’t feel like I’ve ever seen a movie that took that on in a way that gave people the talking points to have the conversation in their families and at dinner tables around or with friends. I wanted to take that on, too. There’s there was a lot that I felt we left out that I wanted to tackle in the new film.
How did you go about choosing the four main subjects of the film?
Daniel Karslake: When I finally decided to make a film, everyone in my life knows what I’m doing and everybody in my life knows sort of how I see the film. Once I made the decision in 2015 to make the film, I let people know that I was looking for at least two if not more families of faith who had trans kids, at least one of them being a family of color. I knew I wanted to try to find a very conservative evangelical family because For The Bible Tells Me So has really had a lot of amazing penetration into more conservative religious communities. But the Evangelical Church is the one we had the least success with so I wanted to find a family from that community. I know that when evangelicals see themselves on the screen, they will stay tuned and keep watching. They might be more apt to change if they see someone like them who speaks in their language, who feels the same way that they do about Jesus and their religion. They might be more apt to give credence to a family that is more like them. People are changed when they see people like them changing in front of them. That’s the power of storytelling. I was looking for an evangelical family and as I said, I wanted to talk about conversion therapy in some way.
The fact that I found Rob and Linda Robertson through a friend of mine who had met them and they had their 12 year old son who came out and they put them in conversion therapy in and out of that for six years. That was very powerful for me. So when I met them, we had this immediate bond. I was just doing a Q & A with them the other day and we just—I fall in love with all these people in these movies and Rob and Linda are no exception. For many gay and lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people, conservative Christians can be scary and judgment-filled and I used to avoid being in their presence. Rob and Linda are not those people anymore. I just really I love them.
Gene Robinson, who’s the openly gay Bishop whose family was profiled in For The Bible Tells Me So had been working with Sarah McBride, a trans colleague of his. He had just married Sarah and her boyfriend, Andy. I think within a month of that wedding, I talked to Gene about the new film and he said, “Ah, I work with this amazing trans woman. I just married her. It’s a really interesting, somewhat tragic story, would you be interested?” And I said, “Yeah, I want to meet her.” I met Sarah. Anyone who meets Sarah knows that Sarah will be the first trans President of the US, probably. But I needed to meet her parents. These are movies about parents, almost more than the LGBTQ kids. It’s a little deceiving but it’s really true. My goal is to tell the parents’ story and through them tell the kids’ story but the parents are paramount. Finally, I was able to meet Sally and David McBride, and obviously they’re amazing as well. They’re super funny and their journey has been powerful, too, so I love that.
I wanted a Latinx story. We hadn’t really hadn’t touched the Latinx community at all with For The Bible Tells Me So. We had a Catholic story but not a Latinx story so meeting Vico was a huge, wonderful thing. I met him through friends in Orlando because my fellow producer, Sheri Heitker Dixon, is in Orlando so we raised a lot of money for the movie in Orlando. I spent a lot of time in Orlando. I happened to meet Vico and his parents and when I found out their story, they were an absolute yes.
The hardest story to find was the family of color with a trans child. I’m clearly a man of paler. I’m super white. When you’re a filmmaker and asking a family to sort of bear their souls on a big movie screen, they need to be able to trust you. There are clear and understandable trust issues between races in America. That’s a real thing. It was quite hard for me to find a family that was willing to tell their story in such a authentic way. In fact, we were cutting the film and I was still looking for that family. There was no way we were finishing without a family of color. Finally, through an old colleague of mine at Riverside Church, where I used to work in New York, he told me about Coleen Porcher, and Elliot. Coleen and Harold are a mixed race couple who had their trans son. I got to know them quickly to the rest of the stories. I also love their story because the right narrative about transgender kids is that the parents are just so irresponsible for sort of not even thinking about allowing their children to transition. It’s just this thoughtless spur of the moment decision, which is of course completely ridiculous. I can’t say it’s never the case but virtually never the case. I love that Coleen and Harold are so good at talking about how seriously they took this and how much they researched and how much they sat with Elliot and with psychologists and psychiatrists and doctors to figure out was this really the right thing. Then of course, realizing that this is who Elliott was born, how he was born to be. His gender identity was different from how he was identified at birth. It’s not a dramatic. It’s not a sad story. There are a lot of tough stories in this movie but their story is just one of parental love and clarity about how to be a good parent and help your child be the best they can be and who G-d made them to be.
I love that you mentioned Sarah McBride possibly being the first trans President of the United States. Had it been a perfect world and the timing worked out, I would been at Tribeca last year, attended the world premiere, and would have finally met Sarah in person after following each other on Twitter for a few years now.
Daniel Karslake: It looks like her first run is going well. She’s running for the Delaware State House. I can’t imagine Sarah losing anything. From what I understand, it’s going well. She still has some time to go. She still has a lot of money to raise. I am obviously a huge fan of hers as well. I think we should do everything we can to support her candidacy.
How has the pandemic affected you as a filmmaker in terms of working on projects?
Daniel Karslake: Well, I have about six other projects that I’m working on and actually in a way, it’s really helped because I used to just live on planes especially the last two years. I live in Berlin, as I mentioned, but I cut the film with our absolutely amazing best-in-the-business editor, Nancy Kennedy, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. I was going back and forth really about every 10 days to two weeks across the across the Atlantic. Once the film premiered in Tribeca, we were in festivals every couple weeks, sometimes two or three in a week. I was just never home. The other projects that I was working on were really suffering. I knew that I would have to take some time off from them but I really wasn’t getting anything done. When all of a sudden, I was forced to sort of cancel all my airplane tickets and stay home in Berlin for three months, it’s been a huge gift to me. I’ve also realized that I don’t know that I have to get on all those planes. Look at how much better the environment is doing. I can do stuff remotely much better than I thought. Let’s learn from this and let’s give this gift back to the planet. It’s been difficult in a lot of ways, don’t get me wrong, but from my work, it’s been very helpful.
What do you hope people take away from viewing the documentary?
Daniel Karslake: There are a lot of takeaways from the film but our mission was really to put forward that message that For The Bible Tells Me So has and it was you can be religious parents, you can have your faith, and you can fully embrace your LGBTQ child for who G-d made them to be. Those things are not mutually exclusive, period. These movies are about what it means to be family and what it means to be a family. I’ve just been thinking recently and I don’t even know how this is going to come out because I’ve never really talked about this yet. But there’s so much discussion about whether LGBTQ people are choosing to be LGBTQ like you’re making a choice to be gay or trans or whatever. That’s always coming from the exact people who’ve made a choice about what to believe. They were not born with their beliefs—they are choosing those beliefs. It’s just so ironic to me that people who are choosing these beliefs are almost accusing us often—you know this Danielle—of making this choice when ironically, the choice is being made on their side. We are made by G-d. I believe that completely. I don’t really know what more to say about that except that I think there’s an irony if people can walk away from this film feeling like there is room for them. They don’t have to walk away from their faith to embrace their child—that makes me very happy. These are these are not movies that talk down to religion or denigrate religion at all. They are, especially the second one, most every one of our reviews have said this—that this is a film that reaches across the aisle, reaches across the church aisle, to have some reconciliation and build a bridge rather than be an either/or. There’s so much wounding in the LGBTQ community from the church but I had no desire either time to sort of hit back. That doesn’t get us anywhere. That doesn’t move us forward. My desire is just to show people another way—help people see that there are other ways to be with their LGBTQ kids.