Breaking The Aging Taboo

Director Discusses Senior Doc Before Detroit Screening

By Christopher J. Treacy

When it comes to the topic of aging among gay men, the word "taboo" doesn't really do it justice. Gerascophobia is more like it, and seems more appropriate since it rolls off the tongue about as well as the average male homosexual deals with the process itself. True, aging is a difficult subject in many groups, but gay men have really gone off the rails when it comes to the preservation of youth and beauty.

Filmmaker PJ Raval felt a calling to examine this phobic phenomenon, and the result is his latest film, "Before You Know It," which screens June 27 thru July 3 at Cinema Detroit, 3420 Cass Ave. Though it's gay themed, it wasn't conceived that way. Instead, Raval was inspired by his mother.

"She'd started talking about retirement and what that looks like financially and emotionally," he says over the phone from Portland, Ore., last week. "It was a very real moment when she started talking about that and it got me thinking about what an interesting conversation it is, what it means when people give voice to becoming seniors."

"Before You Know It" captures both sides of the coin as far as painting a picture of gay seniors is concerned. There is both triumph and despair, disappointment and satisfaction. If it isn't always uplifting, it does succeed at being consistently riveting - you won't be able to turn away. Raval, now 40, shifted his focus specifically onto gay seniors after being introduced to a group of them at a screening for his film "Trinidad" at the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center.

"From there, I began discovering lots of startling statistics about gay seniors," he says. "They're more likely to end up alone, more likely to end up on public assistance. These are people born pre-civil rights era, and they've seen a lot of change in their lifetimes.

"I also wanted to explore my own feelings about getting older," he continues, "because what's happening with it now is going to affect me later. In my opinion, the gay community is ageist in the extreme. You never see gay seniors in our media. All the marketing for films, events, publications - all of it - uses youth-based images."

Raval realized his initial concept for the film in 2008 and starting actively working on it in late 2009, shooting in the same sequence as the timeline in the finished piece. And there's no shortage of deeply personal moments in the film. By working hard to earn the trust of his subjects, he was allowed to capture a trove of insightful vignettes that are packed with emotional power.

"Especially with a film like this, relationships have to develop, just like ordinary friendships do," he says. "I don't go in and right away start trying to pull intimate details out of my subjects. Instead, we meet, talk, get to know each other - hopefully we form a bond of trust. I trust them not to perform for the camera, and they trust me not to exploit them or take advantage of their candor. They're often surprised by how interested we are in their daily lives. Spread the timeline out over a couple years and they let you in more and more."

Raval says that he likes to let his films come together as he's creating them rather than putting undue pressure on his projects to convey a specific message or tell a particular tale. But he says he knew a multi-character format would likely be the best means of storytelling for this film and he sought to find subjects that weren't located in gay villages but, rather, out of the mainstream. Aging is a worldwide issue, gay or otherwise, and he felt the more powerful narratives would stem from spots off the beaten path.

"I learned a lot from this process," he says. "Community is so important. I think we've gotten very casual about throwing that word around, but we no longer think about what it really means. For one of the subjects, it's a senior living facility. For another it's about running a successful organization, making changes and having a level of visibility on the street. For someone else, it's in a bar.

"There's so much fear instilled in us about age. The perception is that aging is somehow about being limited. But I think the films shows how that's not necessarily the case - that aging is just about change."

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