'For They Know Not What They Do': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Courtesy of the Robertson Family
An eloquent plea for tolerance.

In this doc, four families with gay or trans children recount their sometimes tortured journey toward acceptance.

Gay-themed documentaries are a staple at film festivals. Gay Chorus Deep South won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival, and an even stronger film, For They Know Not What They Do, also had its world premiere there. The doc opens by noting that the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage led to an anti-gay backlash in many pockets of the country, but the gay marriage matter turns out to be only a secondary issue in this film, which focuses on four families struggling with LGBTQ acceptance. The individual stories are revealing and often searing. Although some of this material has been highlighted in other films, there are enough sharp and novel details to make this one very much worth watching.

The first story focuses on the Robertsons, an evangelical family in the state of Washington, who find their conservative Christian beliefs under fire when one of their sons announces that he is gay. The parents, who speak quite candidly, sent their son to one of the groups promising conversion therapy, and he is tormented with enough guilt that he tries to get with the program. But his inner turmoil leads him to serious problems with drugs.

Actually, three of the four stories depicted here have tragic dimensions, and some might have wanted to see more purely positive and uplifting stories of gay triumph in a divided country. But I would argue that good drama requires obstacles and conflicts, and the painful elements in these stories are what make them as compelling and deeply moving as they are. Perhaps director Daniel Karslake — who wrote the film with editor Nancy Kennedy — was not certain exactly how these stories would end when he began the project, but he obviously sensed that there was high drama in the families that he chose to follow, and his instincts led to some startling revelations.

Two of the families selected had transgender children, and one of the compelling points the doc makes is that as gays have become more accepted, the fear and prejudice surrounding the much smaller minority of trans Americans encourages more brutal stigmatization of this minority within a minority. The infamous North Carolina bathroom ban and the Trump policy banning transgender troops are just a couple of examples of the final frontier for virulent homophobia. But even here, things are changing. Sarah McBride, a member of one of the families documented here, became the first trans person to address a national convention, the Democratic convention in 2016.

The most startling story recounted is that of Vico, a gay Puerto Rican man living in Orlando, Florida, who recalls suggesting to some of his friends that they go out for drinks at the Pulse nightclub on the night of the horrific mass shooting there in June 2016. He hid in a bathroom and survived, but he lost close friends, and he blames himself for bringing them to the club on that night. Given that tragedy, his family struggles seem relatively benign. His parents always seemed accepting of his sexual orientation, while his beloved grandmother rejected him initially but recently has been willing to embrace his difference.

That family acceptance came too late for the Robertson family, whose journey brings the doc to a deeply stirring conclusion. Although the parents have not abandoned Christianity, the fate of their gay son led them to break off from their church and create another place of worship that welcomes openly gay congregants. They find a sense of healing in offering love and support to these gay youths that they could not offer to their own son until it was too late.

A number of other witnesses appear in the pic, including prominent gay Bishop Gene Robinson and a couple of former anti-gay proselytizers who now repudiate the homophobia that once animated them. In fact, one of them was a leader of the gay conversion therapy programs that he now acknowledges was built on completely false premises. Yet an end title informs us that gay conversion therapy is still legal in 41 states.

This doc is always thoughtful and tightly edited, and it has an emotional impact that not many docs can equal. The title, of course, refers to Christ’s dying words on the cross, though in this case, these words are directed toward the shrinking but still vehement troops of homophobes who are not going to surrender without a fierce fight.

Director: Daniel Karslake
Screenwriters: Nancy Kennedy, Daniel Karslake
Producers: Daniel Karslake, Sheri Heitker, Barbara Simon
Executive producers: Bruce Bastian, Jane and Tami Marquardt, Teresa and Todd Silver, Richard N. Purington, Dickinson Family Foundation
Director of photography: Amy Bronson
Editor: Nancy Kennedy
Music: Chris Maxwell, Phil Hernandez

92 minutes