Tribeca: 'For They Know Not What They Do' Director Talks Timely, Inclusive Look at LGBTQ Rights

For They Know Not What They Do cast-Tribeca Film Festival-Getty-H 2019
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Daniel Karslake, director of 2007's 'For the Bible Tells Me So,' calls the Trump administration's religious freedom efforts an "absolute bastardization of the First Amendment" and shares how inclusion helped him capture the current LGBTQ rights debate.

For They Know Not What They Do, director Daniel Karslake's follow up to his 2007 documentary For The Bible Tells Me So, is a film entrenched in duality, right down to its title.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the doc's world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, Karslake said he partly chose the title, which comes from the New Testament's Gospel of Luke, because "it's some of the last words of Jesus, right? A message that the people who were killing him didn't really know what they were doing and they should be forgiven."

The idea for the 90-minute film came after the director received threatening and homophobic emails through the For the Bible Told Me So's website following the Supreme Court's marriage equality decision. And Karslake hopes For They Know Not What They Do's title and its story challenge who that message is really for. 

"The ultimate take of this movie is that these very well-meaning parents are acting in a way that they feel is loving, [but] often don't really know the damage they can do when they don't accept their LGBTQ family," Karslake said.

Premiering more than a decade after his award-winning debut documentary, For They Know Not What They Do is part-personal journey and part-historical accounting, capturing the country's ongoing fight between the conservative religious right and the LGBTQ community. 

It's a film that "squarely takes on" how the current White House administration has spent its first term "cutting back on progress we've made" and warping freedom of religion into an "absolute bastardization of the First Amendment," according to Karslake.

In much of the same structure and style as its predecessor, the film follows four U.S. families as they balance their religious beliefs with their children's sexual orientations and gender identities. Concurrently, through each family's unique experience, Karslake recounts the country's seemingly brief, but rapid expansion of LGBTQ rights and the swift, unflinching backlash that has followed. 

"I think that in the last decade we've witnessed unprecedented progress in the fight for transgender rights," Sarah McBride, one of the film's subjects and the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign, told THR. "But there's no question that the small group of anti-LGBTQ zealots and politicians are continuing to use religion as a guide to push forward anti-LGBTQ policies." 

Combining archival footage, data and interviews with its LGBTQ subjects, their families, clergy and a constitutional scholar, the film is able to tackle a range of issues, including challenging a child's identity, transitioning and conversion therapy. 

Drawing on his experience with For The Bible, Karslake was able to focus his latest film in such a way that, he hopes, it reaches the right people.

"I had learned about the power of personal story in my time at PBS, but then I spent the next decade hearing how each particular story in [For The Bible Tells Me So] saved someone's life or saved someone's relationship with their families," Karslake told THR. "So I wanted to very specifically make a new film that was a follow-up to the first film that sort of felt similarly palatable for the people who most need to see it."

While there are similarities in the two film's structures, For They Know Not What They Do is a documentary of its time. Karslake said that when it came to what the film focused on, he kept a running list of new LGBTQ issues as they were reported and let the families address their specific struggles as well as the initial list of topics he wanted to tackle. The director revealed that the initial list was based in part on what he didn't do in his first documentary.

"There were so many things that I missed [with For The Bible Tells Me So], that we just didn't approach or broach because it was of its time and things have changed," Karlaske said. 

For They Know Not What They Do features gay and trans men and women, as well as mixed-race and Latino families, with subjects' ages spanning from high school to adulthood. Karslake is adamant that diversity was necessary, particularly after being told by many of the white gay men he approached to help fund the film that "everyone's happy" since the passage of marriage equality, according to the director.  

"Vico [Baez Febo]'s story with his parents is absolutely beautiful and deeply moving for me," Karslake said of the young, gay Puerto Rican man from Orlando who is featured in the film. "The fact that it's a family of color and they're the ones that got it most right immediately is not a narrative I ever see. The fact that [his] father and [his] incredibly Catholic mother immediately said they loved [him], and didn't say, 'I love you but' or 'I love you if ...' — that will save the lives of thousands of people within the Latinx community."

"For me, it's very important to let everybody know that God is love," Annette Febo, the mother of Vico Baez Fabo, said following the premiere screening. "We have to show everybody acceptance and understanding that the biggest happiness for the parents is if their kid's are happy."

The families who participated in the film underwent a careful pre-interview process with Karslake, as he worked to ensure their stories would be told as respectfully and honestly as possible.

"I had not had anybody ask me the kinds of questions that [Karslake] did, in the kind way that he did, and weep with me," Coleen Porcher, a black mother of Caribbean descent who appears alongside her young biracial trans son in the film, said during the post-screening Q&A. "There was a power in his kindness. There was a power in him really sitting and bearing witness with me." 

That delicate approach and dedication to capturing the complex scope of issues facing LGBTQ people and their religious families were shared by all who agreed to be in the film, including the families whose decisions regarding their children may have resulted in tragedy. 

"I think our hope as a family, our three surviving kids and Ron and I, is that maybe families like ours, and maybe families that have small children or haven't had kids yet, and are growing up in the same environment that is toxic towards LGBTQ people, they might hear our story and be open to it, even before their kids come out," Linda Robertson, the matriach of one of the film's families, told THR. "They could avoid making the tragic mistakes that we make when we don't realize how high the stakes are."