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Sgt. Denny's Rant

Film Review:
ASK NOT
a film by  Johnny Symons

ASK NOT is the latest entry in what may be called a new genre of films about the Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal movement; or at least somehow relating to gay patriotic Americans serving in the military.  Like last year's entry, TELL by independent gay filmmaker Tom Murray, ASK NOT is a documentary telling several simultaneous stories woven together into a feature length film with a backdrop of historical footage.  The title: ASK NOT, by Johnny Symons, is a clever play on the name of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell, Don't Pursue, Don't Harass" law enacted by Congress in 1994, which perversely permits gay and lesbian volunteers to serve so long as they never ever say they are gay nor act upon it, nor marry a same sex partner.  Symons seems also to be brilliantly invoking the famed line from President John F. Kennedy's inspirational inaugural speech, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."  Indeed, as Symons' film documents, we simply seek to serve our country.

While the conversely cleverly titled TELL documented the self-told stories of mostly senior gay citizens describing their service from World War II through Vietnam; ASK NOT focuses more on younger gay and lesbian Americans telling their powerful stories to the public in order to end the DADT policy, with some overlap between both films.

One of three stories in ASK NOT follows SoulForce college students in a series of actions, last year, in cities and towns across America, in which several young patriots seek to volunteer to serve while clearly stating to recruiters that they are gay.  They are accompanied by 50 to 100 young supporters who participate in the sit-ins that ensue.  In each case, the news media have been alerted in advance and are are there to record the proceedings.  The recruiter is always excruciatingly polite in informing the "volunteers" that according to the law he may not enlist them into the armed forces.  Then the "would-be" volunteers and their supporters "sit down" to wait "until he changes his mind."  Eventually, the police arrive to arrest the demonstrators for trespassing and/or blocking the entrance to the recruiting station.  The police are always excruciatingly polite, well aware that cameras are running; there would be no outrageous scenes of brutal bashing of patriot minority members wanting to serve their country.  The caustic climax of each of these encounters is the final scene of patriotic volunteers being driven slowly away in police cars.

The second simultaneous story in ASK NOT follows the Call To Duty campaign on college campuses and other appearances around the country by Alex Nicholson, his partner Jarod Chlapowski, and others, in which they describe their patriotic service.  Alex, a multilingual military translator, notes his particularly strategic skill in interpreting Arabic to exemplify the folly of the policy that removed him from performing this critical duty.    Mr. Chlapowski served for five years without any problem, despite having been known by all those in his unit to be openly gay.  Fred Fox, another member of the Call To Duty tour in the film, successfully served as both an enlisted and officer during his time in the service.  He suffers from PTSD as a result of his having been in the rear guard, and one of the last to leave, in the "Black Hawk Down" incident in Somalia.

The third ASK NOT story follows "Perry," a young gay San Francisco citizen who departs for an extended tour of duty in Iraq.  His friends bid him fond farewell, and his story continues as he films himself on duty in Iraq, with a camera given to him by the filmmaker.  In the poignant closing scene of ASK NOT, Perry visits the WWII cemetery in Normandy, France, while on leave from duty in Baghdad.  Kneeling in the rain in the field of tombstones in prayer and tribute to his fallen comrades, he says, "I don't think of myself as gay anymore -- I'm just a soldier. [then there's a long pause while the film is silent, after which he says], "but I am gay.  I put my life on the line every day for my country.  Why should I have to bear an extra burden?"

The thread that weaves ASK NOT together is the historical footage of President Truman signing his executive order, in 1948, integrating Black Americans into the armed forces; President Clinton's campaign promise to integrate gay people into our armed forces and later his telling us how good a compromise DADT is as its introduced; Congressional testimony by General Colin Powell, Senator Sam Nunn, et al.; homophobic commentary by Bob Maginnis; and lurid film clips of near-naked Pride Parade revelers that had been culled by bigots to portray us as nightmare fornicators who would infiltrate our sacred services.  Alas, I'd like to testify about the proper straight promotion parties I was obligated to attend with fellow senior NCOs held at the strip clubs that surround our military bases.  I was profoundly disgusted by the contortionist  performances of the young women obscenely entertaining our good straight and married troops.  Maybe I'm a prude, but I was struck by the irony of seeing such degenerate behavior and how the participants could at the same time view two men who love each other as being unfit for service.

I could say that I liked TELL better than ASK NOT, but to be honest that would be because I'm one of the old "'Nam Era" vets featured in TELL for a full five minutes with my name subtitled in celluloid splendor.  In ASK NOT, I have only a half second cameo appearance, on the lower left of the frame, in the crowd of young Vassar students seated in front of the Recruiting Station in Times Square in New York City last summer.  Ah well, such is the faded glory of an old gay vet.

In fact, ASK NOT adds significantly to the genre that comprises the growing lore of gay service in our nation's armed forces.  It shows the course of history that led to the perverse DADT policy as compared to the courage of Truman in the earlier era in which he led the integration of Black Americans into our military.  It bluntly portrays the dedication of those determined to serve, and the extraordinary courage of those now serving despite the ongoing drive to keep them out.

Even this brief review of the DADT film genre would be incomplete without mentioning Courage Doesn't Ask, an indy short by Joe Acton, which flashes back and forth between horrific combat and the reality of the bitter sordid hospital experience that inevitably follows.  It is only in the closing credits that mention is made of the fact that all the actors in the film happen to be gay combat veterans.  Its message is a bit subtle, but if one is awake and paying attention, the meaning of the film's title becomes eminently clear.

A somewhat accidental entrant to the genre is Recruiter, a feature length documentary by Edet Belzberg, shown at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which follows a rural America recruiter and three of his recruits over a nine-month period.  As it happens, a young woman that he recruits reveals during her training that she is a Lesbian.  The young woman came from an impoverished background and very much patriotically wanted to make something of herself while doing something for her country.  Unfortunately, she realizes during her training that she cannot be true to herself and her love and at the same time become the soldier that the Army wants her to be.  Her experience is all too common these days as she deals, alone and without support, with the traumatic transition from civilian to service member while struggling to reconcile who she is with a power structure that rejects her existence and individuality.  The combat-decorated sergeant who recruited her comes across as profoundly gung-ho to the point of seeming somewhat creepy in his psychological proselytizing and indoctrination technique in which he tells his recruits that he is now their parent who approves of their joining the Army as opposed to their actual parents --some of whom have misgivings about the war and its dangers.  This superb film is a sleeper well worth tracking down and seeing.  The cold lens of its camera resolutely avoids commentary and judgment, leaving the viewer to contemplate the meaning of choosing to serve one's nation.

ASK NOT in particular, and the other films, portray the reality, rather than the archaic stereotype, of patriotic Americans with the strength of character and courage to join our armed forces and serve honorably, regardless of sexual orientation.

Ask Not is scheduled to be shown on the PBS series INDEPENDENT LENS on Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 10PM (check local listings.)

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