BY GARY M. KRAMER | Broken Heart Land” is a poignant documentary that shows how Nancy Harrington transformed the grief she experienced from her gay son Zack’s 2010 suicide into activism.
The Bible Belt town of Norman, Oklahoma, prides itself on being progressive and inclusive, but public discussion of gay rights is still met with resistance. A mob mentality erupted among citizens attending a City Council meeting where a proclamation declaring October LGBT History Month was considered. Shortly after that meeting, Zack, 19, took his life, sending shockwaves through the community.
“Broken Heart Land” follows Nancy Harrington as she begins to speak out about her son and joins a PFLAG-like group, MOM — Mothers of Many. Later in the story, we see her campaigning for equal rights in Norman and supporting the City Council race run by out lesbian Jackie Farley against Chad Williams, one of those who spoke out against the History Month proclamation at the meeting preceding Zack’s suicide.
The Stulbergs’ film gets up close and personal with the Harrington family as well as their supporters and detractors, documenting the impact a young man’s death has on an entire community. Scenes when the family is commemorating Zack’s life or simply sitting in awkward silence at the dinner table are touching. And scenes of the MOM meetings and the City Council campaign battle are compelling.
Gay City News spoke with out gay filmmaker Jeremy Stulberg about the powerful film he and his sister made.
GARY M. KRAMER: How did you come to learn of and tell Zack and Nancy’s story?
JEREMY STULBERG: My sister was in Oklahoma at the time when this tragedy happened. We met the Harringtons at a candlelight vigil seven days after Zack died. The Harringtons opened up to us and allowed us to tell their story. They underwent an incredible transformation. Nancy was very quiet at the beginning, but she had to talk and, as the story unfolded, she blossomed.
GMK: You get some pretty intense encounters — such as Nancy confronting Chad Williams after a League of Women Voters meeting. How did you get the access you did from both sides of the LGBT rights issue?
JS: We were very honest with them. This is a town really grappling with this issue. They had this painful public meeting that was difficult for both sides. The ideas the townspeople had never came out in a public forum. Then to have Zack’s suicide thrown in was explosive. We were honest about what we wanted to do and present. We wanted to understand their perspective.
It’s difficult to hear things that some [interviewees] said about gay people or other minorities, but I would just listen and absorb it and take it in and be a blank slate. They had the opportunity to speak for themselves. Being in close proximity to them and understanding their complexities were very eye-opening. Each side knew we were filming with the others. They respected that and understood it would be more powerful if both sides were represented.
We are dealing with this evolution of LGBT rights in this microcosm, where people’s views are in flux, evolving and changing in a very public way.
GMK: The film shows how personal change becomes political. What can you say about making a gay rights film in the heartland?
JS: There are, in many ways, two different Americas. There are states where LGBT rights are granted, but there are shocking oversights that we still have to realize are happening in the heartland. People who live in red state/ small town America — especially gay people — have a different experience entirely than folks in cities/ blue states, who take rights for granted.
How can we as LGBT people mobilize in areas where it’s really needed? People shouldn’t have to move from their homes and families because they don’t have hospital visitation rights. That’s shocking to me as someone who lives in New York, but that’s the reality for these people on a daily basis. It is oppressive.
GMK: You read Zack’s diary entries and show home movies of Zack to give him a voice and show viewers glimpses of what he was like. That must have been painful. How did you select what images and entries and how much of Zack to show?
JS: The Harrington family was incredible, because once we gained their trust — we didn’t ask them for these things — they made a decision as a family. They could have not given us the diary or home video footage. It was really a gift. We went through his entire diary and picked out the relevant moments.
It’s heartbreaking to read that material. We wanted Zack’s story to intersect with Nancy’s own coming out to the MOMs. We wanted there to be some synergy between Nancy’s journey and her son’s.
GMK: The election campaign is an interesting facet to the story. How did you come to tell this part of the story?
JS: It just happened. We wanted to make a character-driven verite documentary. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. We wanted to make a film about this family and what they went through. Nancy became the protagonist, but we also wanted to make a film about this town. It started with this horrific town meeting and the seeds that were sown became the plot of the film. That became a microcosm of the American political process. These were the same themes we were dealing with with Zach and his family.
GMK: Nancy asks in the film, “How did I get to this place?” How did you get to the place where you became an activist filmmaker?
JS: I don’t think of myself as an activist filmmaker at all, but I don’t think you can witness this story as it unfolds and not be moved by it. This film happens to lend itself to the political. There are aspects that resonate politically and it serves as a call to action.
BROKEN HEART LAND | Directed by Jeremy Stulberg and Randy Stulberg | Jun. 24, 8 p.m. | PBS/ WLIW21 World | Cablevision Ch. 132; Time Warner Ch. 164; Verizon Fios Ch. 473; Additional airdates: worldchannel.org/programs/america-reframed