Oprah (as in Winfrey) again shows how to take a good idea and make it even better! After reigniting our passion for reading with the Oprah Book Club several years ago, Oprah has done it again but this time for films–specifically the art form known as the Documentary. OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) premieres “The Doc Club” Tuesday May 10th, hosted by Rosie O’Donnell and I recently was able to attend a screening of the first Doc featured followed by the taping of “The Doc Club.” It was really an amazing and moving experience both because of the passion and emotion of the Documentary and the story it tells and because I have longed for an opportunity to make great Documentaries available on a more mainstream basis.
The first Doc was a wise choice. It is “Becoming Chaz” an incredibly well filmed and very intimate explication of Chaz Bono’s decision to undergo gender transformation. Everyone in America (at least of a certain age) seems to recall Chastity Bono from the opening and closing of the Sonny & Cher show. Well, if you have been under a rock, you may not know that Chastity Bono has undergone gender transformation surgery and is now Chaz Bono. While I knew this, the film developed the why’s and how’s of this important transformation both in a personal way for us to understand Chaz (and his wonderful Partner, now fiance, Jenny) and in a more global way to really start to grasp transgender issues. The film is the work of Documentary masters Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, The Eyes of Tammy Faye and, most recently and their first narrative film, Howl starring James Franco and the words of Allen Ginsburg). These guys really know how to get past the “who, what, when, where and why” basics to make the audience feel. One sometimes may cringe in viewing the Doc (as it is medically honest) but one never shies away from the truth that is presented and the warmth and honesty of Chaz and Jenny. And, yes, Cher honestly speaks in the documentary about her struggle with this issue and the personal and critical decision made by Chaz.
I would urge every reader to run and not walk to see “Becoming Chaz.” But, the fact is that normally it is darn hard to find Documentaries (short of staying up late and constantly scanning the guide for IFC or the like or hunting down and attending Film Festivals) which often play once and then might go around the Festival Circuit. What makes this extraordinary film more special is that all one needs to do to see it is turn to OWN and watch the film (starting next Tuesday). Like the Book Club, Oprah has put her money where her heart is and is screening a Documentary each month and will follow each with (most often live) panel discussion hosted by Rosie O’Donnell and with the featured people of the Documentary. Because this was the first Documentary and due to the fact that they wanted to have Chaz, Jenny, both of their Families, and the Film Makers (and the Doctors involved in the surgery!) available to join in the discussion, OWN showed this Documentary in various places around the country and then taped this episode in Los Angeles where everyone of the discussion group (or most of them) could be live. And, I got to be there thanks to the wonderful people at OUTFEST, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival–an organization I support wholeheartedly!
The discussion lived up to the personal honesty and emotion of the film and while the film was strong and thorough enough to leave the audience with few questions the fact that there was this “what is happening now” conversation really made it more special. I urge everyone to watch the Doc and The Doc Club. And, kudos to Oprah for making this statement about Documentaries. If The Doc Club succeeds a fraction as much as the Oprah Book Club, we will be in for a treat and likely see even more great Documentaries made and screened to the mainstream world.
I want to commend Rosie O’Donnell too–she was a consummate pro during the taping and in terms of her welcoming both the panelists as well as the audience. Let’s face it, the transgender issue is a sensitive one and one that is unfortunately foreign to too many people. The discussion could easily have been either dull or insulting (i.e., Springer-ized or Povich-ed) but instead was beautiful. It was a reminder to all of us who are progressive that we cannot leave anyone out as we work towards equality and justice simply because of compromise. Please watch the film and stay for the discussion–you won’t regret it and I bet you become addicted to Documentaries like me!
“Becoming Chaz” and “The Doc Club” will air on the OWN network all month long so check your local listings or visit the site for upcoming schedule: www.oprah.com/own Enjoy!!!