How The Pulse Nightclub Massacre Transformed "Conversion Therapist"
Local horror-tinged short makes the personal political
By Richard Whittaker,
7:00PM, Fri. Aug. 23, 2019
Conversion therapy - the quack science practice of using psychological and sometimes even physical torture to try to change a person's sexuality - is only explicitly restricted by law or statute in 18 states and a handful of cities. That's more horrifying than anything in "Conversion Therapy," the dark short screening at aGLIFF tonight.
It'll be the second screening, as it already played yesterday as part of the festival's Late Night and Sexy shorts package. That was a huge moment for writer/director Bears Rebecca Fonté: Not only was it the film's home town premiere, and the first time one of their films as a director played at an Alamo Drafthouse, but it was also a chance to see it with people who backed the Kickstarter that funded it. That, Fonté admitted, made for an extra-nervous evening. "I've never done a film where there were people were invested in how a film looked, so I wanted them to be happy with it and to be proud."
The short follows homophobic evangelical preacher Ira (Michael Dickson), who tries to seduce his babysitter, Justine (Sara Fletcher) - only to discover that she has plans that will turn his own tactics against him, in bloody and vengeful fashion. When Fonté originally wrote it, the story was a more conventional horror, "basically just a writing exercise," which got stuffed into a drawer while they worked on other films, including producing the festival favorite "The Procedure."
But the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando made Fonté pull the story back into the daylight and rebuild it as something much more immediate and personal. The earlier version, Fonté said, "was full of rage, but didn't have any direction. It was eventually a torture film, and it was my version of a Hostel film - I was asking audiences to cheer for someone who was torturing him."
After the Pulse shooting, Fonté found a direction for that anger: "Not necessarily the terrorists who did the shooting, but all the ministers who were on TV and saying things like, 'Oh, they had it coming,' and 'They did us a service.' I get so frustrated by the hypocrisy of religion that I just poured all my rage into the script, and this has to be the next film I make. Then knowing this was going to be the film I was going to make, this was also going to be the time I was going to come out."
There was an undoubted responsibility to show the horrors of conversion therapy by placing it in a different context (there have been cases of electroshock therapy, with nails shoved under the victims' fingers), but there's also a fantastical, if slightly gory, element of wish fulfillment in assembling what Fonté described as "an LGBTQ A-Team, where it's a group of people who come together to solve wrongs done on the LGBTQ community, and I'm introducing these characters in the same way you got to meet B.A. Baracus."
"Conversion Therapist" plays as part of the Late Night and Sexy Shorts Package at aGLIFF, Fri., Aug. 23, 9:30pm.
All Genders, Lifestyles and Identities Film Festival
Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, 1120 S. Lamar, 512/861-7040
Tickets and info at www.agliff.org.