Out of the Past (1998): Jeff Dupre’s Docu about Knowledge of History and Self

Sundance Film Festival Jan. 16, 1998–Relevant and informative, Jeff Dupre’s aptly titled Out of the Past explores the crucial link between the knowledge of history and the knowledge of self.

Tracing the emergence of gay and lesbian consciousness in American history through the eyes of a courageous female adolescent, the docu centers on the latter’s creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance in a Utah high school that became a hot political issue in 1996. Running time of one hour presents some problems for theatrical distribution, though winning the Audience Award at Sundance is certainly an indication that the film should play well in movie-houses, perhaps in a double-feature program along with another gay-themed short.

Boasting an original and evocative structure, Out of the Past tells the story of Kelli Peterson, a bright teenager, whose well-intentioned efforts to legitimize the gay and lesbian cause in her high school, by establishing a caucus, provoked a backlash in the conservative state of Utah. Initially, the school board and state legislature went out of their way to keep the teenage association from gathering in the school. Rather unexpectedly, Kelli and her cohorts were thrust into the national spotlight, which forced them to conduct a dauntless public struggle to secure the right for gay teenagers to gather on campus, just like any other social club.

As interesting as Peterson’s tale is, what lends Dupre’s nonfictional work a greater socio-historical significance is the broader context of 300 years of American history, within which five landmark stories of lesbians and gays are placed and examined. Following a chronological order, the first figure to be explored is the 17th century Puritan clerk, Michael Wigglesworth, who recorded a secret diary about the tension between his sacred calling and more profane desire.

Other historical segments, which are interspersed within the contempo Utah struggle, concern the “Boston marriage” of 19th century novelist Sarah Orne Jewett and prominent socialite Annie Fields; Henry Gerber and the 1924 founding of the first American gay rights organization in Chicago in 1924; Bayard Rustin’s momentous role in the civil rights movement for African-Americans and his ambiguous relationship with Martin Luther King; and Barbara Gittings’ pioneering activism in the 50s and 60s.

Focused interviews with Peterson, her friends and her family highlight the dangers inherent in the isolation of gay youth in school, often a result of societal pressures, and the importance of historical role models for youngsters’ decision to come out and fight for their rights.

Dwelling on little-known but determining episodes in American politics, helmer Dupre integrates a number of interviews with distinguished scholars, such as historians George Chauncey and Lillian Federman, who discuss these stories in detail and reflect upon their implications for the nature of history, a discipline that continues to benefit from revisiting–and revising–the past. By examining how these tales of gays and lesbians have been first obscured and then heroically reclaimed, Out of the Past explores the processes by which American history continues to be reconstructed from a contempo perspective.

Production values and archival footage are excellent. Prominent actors (Stephen Spinella, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cherry Jones, Leland Gantt, and Edward Norton), who provide the narration for the five figures, bring to life historical portraits by reading letters and diaries that, for the most part, have been unknown to the general public.

Out of the Past demonstrates the crucial link between the past and the present and the impact of history on the formation of individual identity and collective consciousness of minority groups that have been under–or mis–represented in American culture.