David Charles Rodrigues sounds a bit anxious, and it’s little wonder why. This month, he embarks on the biggest challenge of his career: Opening his film Gay Chorus Deep South at the Tribeca Film Festival.
After years of toiling on short films and commercials, Rodrigues managed to secure financing through AirBnB to produce his documentary feature. Rodgrigues followed the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus on a 2017 tour of the deep south as it attempted to bridge the widening chasm of the American political landscape. The chorus selected four states–all of whom had or were considering anti-LGBTQ legislation–as their destinations, performing a staggering 25 concerts in just seven days.
Queerty snagged time with Rodrigues just before the big opening to chat about the transformative experience of making the film, and the hope he found on the road to end the poisonous polarization in America.
Gay Chorus Deep South premieres April 26 at Tribeca before touring film festivals around the country.
How did you get hooked up with the choir? Were you there for the whole trip?
Yes. We started documenting about eight months prior to the tour. Basically, I was very invested in the 2016 election. They didn’t go the way we expected them to go. But most importantly, I wasn’t as shocked about the result of the election as I was about the divisiveness the country was experiencing through these elections and through the media. I was really trying to figure out ways of telling stories or creating activist movements that could help people talk, and help them realize that the divisiveness is just a myth or lesser than we think it is. In the end, we all want the same things: to love one another, be in a community and have friendships. Just live a fine life. The things we have in common—though it’s cliché to say—are greater than our differences.
So I was talking to my wife about this, and she’d just read this article about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was going to tour the south. The moment she said that I just became obsessed with the idea [of the documentary]. We had lived in San Francisco for many years, and I was always closely connected to the LGBTQ community there. Then, I just so happened to be working with AirBnB at the time on something different, and I brought the pitch to them. They jumped on board to finance it as an independent film, the first ever film they’ve financed.
This whole project seemed mad from the start. 25 performances in 7 days!? That’s crazy. Did that schedule worry you?
Yeah. It was more of a challenge than a worry, mostly because we were on a very, very, very tight budget. Despite AirBnB financing it, we had an independent documentary sized budget. I was only able to have two small units. During the production, the core team was only four people.
On tour, there were only ten people. So we had to really be surgical and do a lot of smart thinking to be there for the best moments. But it was all very planned out. One thing that was instrumental in making this film was that we and the leadership of the chorus were one team. They were beyond helpful. They made our lives—I don’t want to say “easier”–but they made things possible. They had their own madness of coordinating 300 men touring the south and doing all these performances. They still had the bandwidth to help to tailor to what we needed. I’ll forever be grateful.
You really intimate how church-like the chorus is. Not like a cult, but it’s a community. This keeps coming up in so much work I’ve been doing recently. What kind of community does the choir offer?
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is one of the tightest, most loving, embracing communities I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Even, you know, I’m straight and Latino and I don’t even live in San Francisco, but I still feel I’m part of their family after going through this experience. It’s literally saved lives. These men, the rehearse every Monday and Thursday for a full year with almost no time off. They’re so dedicated. It is their church. It’s a church that promotes love without boundaries, that promotes just being there for each other. They have so many inner fundraising efforts as well for the wealthier members to help other members. On the tour, there were a lot of fundraising events and just members straight-up paying for other members that couldn’t afford to go. There are even stories—one member even donated a kidney to another. I could have made 18 films with all the stories.
I want to add to that question: My greatest discovery, and I think for the chorus members as well, was the role that the church plays in these towns. The role that they play is their community—no different a community than what the chorus is for their members. That was really eye-opening for me. Not all churches—but many of them—are leading this front toward acceptance and celebration, and not just of the LGBTQ community, but of just being open-minded and loving one another. It’s very refreshing and gives me a lot of hope.
Did anyone in the chorus come to you with apprehensions about appearing on camera?
I was able to create a very deep comfort level with them. The only challenge we had was that I wanted—and I feel we were able to achieve this—during the performance I didn’t want to shoot it like a performance. I wanted to shoot it as if you were on stage with them, almost like you were a member of the chorus. So, being really close with them, and seeing their sweat and feeling their breath. Getting the most of their faces and their humanity. That was, especially during the first concert, a bit challenging for them. The next morning I went to rehearsal and spoke to all of them and made a public apology. I guaranteed our effort would pay off in the end.
There is queer community in the south. It’s surprising though that some of the hottest criticism comes from a queer historian who feels alienated by his geography. Did his attitude change? Was this an attitude you encountered elsewhere?
Yeah. I think the true nature of that attitude is more about the idea of how the liberal coastal cities or “elites” perceive the south in a really stereotypical way, that they kind of look down on them. Making the film we encountered that a lot. It was almost better to say you were gay than you were from California. So I feel like the underlying motif around his discourse was really about that. I think it’s important to show all sides and give a voice to those people. He wasn’t the only one. There were some very prominent professors from colleges—gay professors—that were very critical and sent letters to the chorus telling them not to come.
With that said, those are two or three people who have their own agendas. The joy and the happiness and the togetherness that the tour brought to those communities is still lasting to this day.
The most powerful idea your film intimates is that it is incumbent upon our community to bridge the gap and affect change. We can’t change who or what we are to conform to the right-wing/religious/Trumpian ideal—whatever name you want to label it. But we can bring others to our side simply by reaching out and offering hospitality. How do we encourage that?
One of my favorite moments in the film that opened my own mind was towards the beginning of the third act when Steve, the board chair, is in front of his school and has this really emotional moment and recognizes that he needed to be kinder to his parents. Just because his parents were averse to him coming out didn’t mean he had to just shut them up. I feel like that, for me, is a really important lesson. Don’t delete your conservative uncle off Facebook, but don’t post Bernie Sanders stuff on his wall. Try to talk to him. If people feel like they are being heard, they will listen. That’s the biggest message for me on that topic: People who feel like they are being heard will listen.
You interview protesters. Were they reluctant to talk to you? Were there other incidents of harassment that you chose not to include?
Yeah. There were many, actually. There were protesters at maybe 30% of the performances. I spoke to all of them; it was pretty crazy. I’d just walk up and start talking and they’d be fine with it. In the church in South Carolina at the end of the film there was a bomb threat and it had to be evacuated. But I didn’t want to sensationalize it. I didn’t want to take away the beauty and the hope [from the moment] from some crazy person who just called in a threat that wasn’t anything.
Now, if there was a real threat, then, of course, that’d be something that needed to be shown. And that’s what I think the media does: It takes the 1% of negativity and make it 100% of the story. I really wanted to weight the story as we truly experienced it.
That speaks to the scary, exciting times we live in. Pete Buttigieg is pulling up in the polls, but hostility toward LGBTQ people is higher than ever in red states. For you now having lived through this experience, how can we as a community bridge the political divide in both conversation and mindset?
I really think it’s focusing on the human needs we all have. That was really the mistake that Hillary [Clinton] made: she was focused on politics, not the people. I feel like if we’re able to focus on the people and what they need, I feel like they will be willing to overcome their own prejudices and their own dogmas to fulfill those needs. If we have a candidate, they need to speak to the people. That’s the only way we move past this moment we’re in right now.
So in retrospect, what was the biggest misconception you realized you had going into this?
I think it was really the role that the church plays in people’s lives in these communities. It can be so positive and so profound and really help push an agenda of acceptance and belonging way more than we ever could imagine. It’s a really beautiful thing these churches are doing, and hopefully, if it’s through the film or through their own outreach, they can inspire other churches to do the same. That’s a way churches can have a comeback: by playing that role, which is their original role. And just the beauty and resilience of the LGBTQ community in the south, too.
For you as an artist, what personal illumination or growth did you feel you experienced in making this film?
Oh my God, this film had such a profound change for me, both personally and professionally. Professionally, it was the first time I was able to fully focus on just making a film. Thank God for AirBnB’s help. It just shows how much better something can be when you’re able [to focus and not worry about money]. But then personally, I just evolved as a human being. I feel like I’ve gone from being an ally to an activist. That’s really what this film made. I would love to make many more films focused on this community and other communities that are “the other.” I think that was really my true connection point. I’m half Brazilian, half American, half Greek, I don’t even know where I’m from.
I lived half my life in Brazil, half in the States. When I’m there I’m American, when I’m here I’m Brazilian. So I’ve always been treated like a minority everywhere I’ve gone. But I turned that into an advantage. That’s what the chorus is doing too. They’re taking the word “gay” and making it into something worthy of performing at the Davis Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Forty years ago that was something really profound.
I just want to dedicate the rest of my life to use entertainment to drive these beautiful messages and to turn film into a form of activism.
Gay Chorus Deep South premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival Monday, April 29. It will continue to play at film festivals nationwide before a roll-out on streaming.