Film Reviews

The Straight Story of SAVE Dade

Sergio Giral's documentary, Chronicle of an Ordinance, is not at all queer. The strait-laced title gives the first clue that the 50-minute video intends to tell, as simply as possible, the tale of the political struggle over the addition of "sexual orientation" to the long list of identity categories protected from discrimination by the Miami-Dade County Human Rights Ordinance.

Passed by the county commission with a vote of 7-6 on December 1, 1998, the amendment represents a victory for SAVE Dade, a broad-based coalition of citizens and community organizations created in 1997 to promote the amendment and, according to the organization's mission statement, "end discrimination in Miami-Dade County." With opponents of the measure currently seeking a repeal, SAVE Dade continues to lobby key politicians and build voter support in the event that the ordinance should come up for a referendum. Chronicle of an Ordinance, then, serves not only as a historical document but as a weapon in an ongoing battle.

The conventional structure of the documentary fits neatly within the larger strategy of SAVE Dade to make gays, lesbians, and bisexuals seem conventional, too. As a reaction against the apocalyptic characterization of homosexuality as ungodly by Christian extremists, this normalizing strategy makes sense. SAVE Dade and its nemesis, the Christian Coalition, are the stars of this antagonistic drama. Interspersed with the historical treatment of the ordinance and its antecedents, however, six subjects sit for traditional interviews to talk about their experience of homosexuality as just plain folks. Selected to demonstrate the cross-section of the leadership and allies of the county's gay communities, the talking heads include three gay men, two lesbians, and one straight woman; four Anglos, one Latino, and one African American. The formal interviews focus issues introduced by an even larger and more diverse number of speakers filmed expounding dispassionately on behalf of the amendment at hearings and rallies.

These relaxed and highly reasonable speeches serve as a counterpoint to the absurd historical footage of a police officer warning a high school assembly -- in what looks to be Dade County in the early 1970s -- that at any moment, any of the youngsters might turn gay. "And don't think you won't get caught," he says sternly, if somewhat incoherently, "because this is something you can't get away with."

This panic over an omnipresent homosexuality ready to strike unsuspecting victims at any time motivated the movement against the county's previous ordinance protecting sexual orientation from discrimination. The first such legislation in the United States, the original ordinance was passed and subsequently repealed back in 1977. Spearheaded by the now infamous orange-juice queen, Anita Bryant, the organization Save Our Children attacked the original ordinance with the same horror stories of corrupt youth invoked by the Christian Coalition today. Chronicle of an Ordinance offers some marvelous tomato-throwing scenes of Bryant gloating over her victory, and her creepy husband kissing her to demonstrate "what heterosexuals do."

With Bryant the only queen who appears until well past the middle of the video, Chronicle of an Ordinance itself stands as a straight-acting example of "what documentaries do." Just as SAVE Dade's strategies seem staid in comparison to, say, ACT UP's shenanigans of the early Nineties, Chronicle is uptight alongside the wild experiments in queer truth-telling of that time, such as Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1990). There are moments, however, when director Giral can't help himself. An award-winning filmmaker whose 1974 classic The Other Francisco still appears in U.S. textbooks as an example of political daring and aesthetic innovation, Giral's Chronicle strays fleetingly from the straight path. The most arresting scenes from the video come from found footage shot by county surveillance cameras trained on gay bars and beaches. Giral later imitates the high-angle surveillance shots in his own treatment of the Christian Coalition at prayer among their pickets. The estranging shots and buzzing audio exoticize the religious zealots, rendering them the mysterious subjects of old-school ethnography. The happy frolic of victorious SAVE Dade supporters with which the video closes does not hold nearly the interest of these fascinating purloined images.

Which probably is for the best. Secrecy, ostracism, and gay self-loathing have made for some of the most riveting plot lines in world literature, theater, and film, but there's a lot to be said for being treated just like everybody else under with law. Chronicle of an Ordinance drives that point home. And after the battle is definitively won, that's where the video will hold the most value: as a home movie for a county that finally welcomes all of its children into the fold.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado