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Laramie Movie Scope:
Family Fundamentals

Irreconcilable differences in families

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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September 16, 2002 -- "Family Fundamentals" is a heartbreaking look at families torn apart with irreconcilable differences relating to religious beliefs regarding the morality of homosexuality. The title might lead you to believe the stories relate to fundamentalists, but actually there are three Christian, or Christian-based religions being examined, Catholicism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and a Pentecostal church.

A daughter, a son, their parents and two estranged friends are the subjects of this documentary about people and families torn apart because of their beliefs. Director Arthur Dong, whose last film, "Licensed to Kill" was also about homosexuals, got permission from two of the families to do this film. The other subject, former Congressman Robert Dornan, refused to be interviewed for the film, but he appears in it anyway, thanks to videotape archives from various sources.

Brian Bennett was a long-time aide to Dornan. According to Bennett, Dornan was like a father to him, until Bennett told Dornan he was gay. The two haven't spoken much since. Dornan is an outspoken opponent of gays, citing religious reasons. Bennett, who is both a Catholic and a Republican, spoke emotionally of the day he found out the Catholic Church has a history of tolerance to homosexuals. It was obviously a relief for Bennett to discover that he might be able to reconcile his beliefs and his sexuality. Whether or not he was able to do that is not really discussed in the film. The current leadership of the Catholic Church accepts homosexuals, but it also deems any sexual acts outside of marriage to be sinful.

Bennett clearly wants to renew his friendship with Dornan. Dornan's adamant opposition to homosexuals is illustrated by several taped speeches in Congress and elsewhere. Dornan, who is a Catholic, seems to greatly exceed the guidelines of his own religion's catechism in his opposition to homosexuals. The catechism reads, in part, "The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfil God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition." Whether or not the Dornan and Bennett can ever be friends again is an open question at the end of the film.

Kathleen Bremner's views are more extreme than those of the Catholic Church, which at least makes noises as if it understands that some people are homosexual in nature and cannot change their basic nature. Bremner founded San Diego Spatula Ministries after finding out her own twice-married daughter, Susan Jester, was gay in 1984. She subsequently discovered her grandson, David Jester, is also gay. Bremner seems to believe that homosexuality is just a lifestyle choice, and that all homosexuals can be converted back to their natural heterosexual state. The religious doctrine behind this belief is not explained, but it probably has something to do with the doctrine that God cannot be the author of sin, so homosexuality, being regarded as evil in and of itself, cannot be accepted as occurring naturally. Therefore, other factors, such as the media, etc. must be blamed for its occurrence. This seems to be a common belief in many fundamentalist, evangelical and pentacostal congregations.

This, of course, is at odds with the gay experience, which is that being gay is a discovery people make about themselves, not a choice they can make by will power alone. At some point the homosexual realizes that is what he or she is. They cannot choose to be other than what they are. It is something "hard-wired" into them. There is some objective physiological evidence to support this view. Of course, this is not a black and white issue. People are not necessarily entirely gay or entirely straight. They may possess elements of both, such as bisexuals. In some cases, they may have a choice. This third group of in-betweens probably makes up the bulk of the miraculous "conversions" from gay to straight which are held up as shining examples of the effectiveness of whatever conversion program is being touted. Such conversions are irrelevant to those who have no choice. Bremner is one of those who believes in conversion of gays to straights. She helped to found the San Diego Christian Trauma and Sexuality Conferences to advocate homosexuality therapy.

Tragically, Bremner and her daughter, Susan, a gay rights activist are estranged from each other and Bremner doesn't accept her grandson, his partner and their children as a legitimate family, either. The pain represented in this split family is palpable. Bremner's daughter and grandson want to be accepted by her, but Bremner cannot seem to accept them. It may be that toleration is as far as Bremner can go in that regard. It is hard to see how they can ever reconcile their differences, particularly when Bremner has so much emotionally invested in her religious endeavors.

A similar situation, perhaps even more tragic, is the split between Brett Mathews, and his parents. His father, a former Bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Erda, Utah, is still a community and church leader in that area. Brett is a member of the Board of Directors of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in Los Angeles. The family was split when Brett announced he was gay in 1999. The family agreed to participate in the film, and Brett is shown flying home to Erda for the first time since the family split. However, Brett's parents reneged on their agreement to allow filming to continue after his first day back in Utah. Brett feels their agreement to participate in the film was just a ploy to get him to visit them. They used the visit to continue their efforts to urge Brett to change back to a heterosexual. They have sent him hundreds of letters urging him to change. After flying back to Los Angeles, we see Brett talking to his parents again on the telephone. "You don't understand anything," he says. He hangs up, crying.

Perhaps this film can be a catalyst to enable families to heal these kinds of fractures. The pain and suffering on both sides must be equally great (although the pain of the parents is not as readily seen in this film because they are on camera less and don't participate in the film as fully as the children do). The emotional cost is so high and for what? To prove some minor theological point? There is clearly more than religion causing these families to split. After all, homosexuals are also not accepted in China (where homosexuals have been jailed) and they are persecuted in India and in Islamic states. These are all countries with vastly different religious, historical and social traditions than the U.S. This is a very widespread phenomenon. Although this film is focused on a very small part of the issue, at least it is a start.

I would have liked to have heard more of the theological underpinnings for the beliefs put forward in this film, as well as some alternate views. I would have liked to have seen an example of a split family that managed a reconciliation. That might have been more instructive than a steady diet of people who stubbornly refuse to deal. I saw another film last year with a similar theme, "Trembling Before G-d," it was about conservative Jews cut off from their religion because they were homosexuals. They faced some of the same problems shown in "Family Fundamentals," but it was not quite as gloomy because it covered a wider variety of experiences. The cinematography was a little shaky in the film. I saw the image go out of focus and then back in once. This was probably due to the scene being filmed with a single camera. The film was produced, directed, written and photographed by Arthur Dong. This film rates a C+.

For more information on this film, including synopsis, profiles, director's statement, Sundance Film Festival notes and other features, click on this link to the official home page of Family Fundamentals. Information on other films by Arthur Dong are available by clicking on this link to the Deep Focus Productions home page.

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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