SFF 2015: Gayby Baby
Marriage equality in Australia is, at this stage, inevitable – and long overdue. Opponents of same-sex marriage have increasingly found their go-to arguments rendered obsolete or not fit for polite company. Even regressive politicians like Cory Bernardi try to avoid blatant homophobia (not always successfully), while religious dogma’s relevance continues to erode. The one argument that endures – as seen in newspapers’ letters sections – is the so-called “nuclear family”. Perhaps homophobes are not all as intolerant as South Australian bishop Greg O’Kelly, who compared children of gay couples to the Stolen Generation. But, as Joe Hockey rants over the opening credits of Maya Newell’s Gayby Baby, many on the religious right are convinced that children need a “mother and a father”.
As an argument against legalising same-sex marriage, it’s entirely unconvincing. After all, even without legal marriage, more than one in ten gay couples and one third of lesbian couples in Australia already have children. But logic has never played a particularly large part in this argument, and the argument refuses to disappear. Gayby Baby is unapologetic about its political goals, right from the aforementioned Joe Hockey lecture that opens the film, and he is shortly joined by a host of Australian politicians asserting the primacy of the “traditional” family (whatever that is).
The documentary follows four Australian same-sex families, using them as a kind of proof that families can be healthy – and fun, and messy and entertaining – regardless of gender/sexuality. (“Proof” might sound like an overstatement, but in the Q&A that followed its Sydney Film Festival screening, director Maya Newell and producer Charlotte McLellan noted that they’d be screening the film to the Federal Parliament in August – this is overtly and explicitly a political document.) The film is certainly entertaining, sweet and above all affirming – but let’s be honest, if you’re in the increasingly irrelevant camp that’s convinced of the evil of same-sex families, you’re probably not the kind of person who’s going to actively choose to see this movie. (Also, you’re probably a dickhead.)
Part of the problem with Gayby Baby, then, is that its goals are so modest. Of course these households aren’t inherently harmful environments because their parents happen to pack the same set of genitalia. So what we’re left with is lovely, enjoyable but not especially substantial. A slice-of-life doco focusing on one of these four families would presumably have allowed us to develop a real rapport with its subjects, but the need to present a diverse group of families – to convince retrograde politicians that this one family isn’t an outlier – weakens the film.
Which is a shame, because this is a remarkably well constructed film. The camera is unobtrusive and intimate, as though we’re old family friends staying with these families for a while. Each of the stories has a clear, organic dramatic arc (and the children, all in their early teens, are super cute). There’s Ebony, whose goals of being a successful singer are complicated by her two mums’ precarious financial situation, aggravated by her younger brother’s epilepsy. Graham’s difficulty reading – the result of a traumatic, unexplained youth – is complicated by a move to Fiji where he’s cautioned not to talk too openly about his two dads. Wrestling fanatic and utter charmer Gus functions primarily as – in his own words – “comic relief”, while Matt struggles to reconcile his mums’ Christian beliefs with their church’s disapproval of same-sex relationships. Newell tells these kids’ stories with respect; it’s clear we’re seeing their true personalities, their actual opinions, rather than a simplified narrative moulded to suit her goals as a filmmaker.
Nonetheless, 85 minutes’ time is hardly sufficient to give us a full understanding of who these children are, to really begin to sense the shape of their lives and their families. As a refutation of the bigotry directed at same-sex couples with children, Gayby Baby is a rousing success (I’m particularly impressed by the choice to open the film with Gus’s parents creating a bit of pre-Christmas Santa theatre – a subtle reminder of the way Judeo-Christian traditions have evolved and matured over time.) As a brisk, engaging example of documentary-as-entertainment, it’s equally successful. As a complete film, however, it’s handicapped by its (admirable) political motivations.