Tuesday, July 5, 2016 at 7:30pm
Arthur Dong's Licensed to Kill
155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
Introduced by Matt Wolf
Licensed to Kill, Arthur Dong, 1997, 16mm, 77 mins
In the 1970s, documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong was attacked by a group of gay bashers in San Francisco. Two decades later in 1997, a year before the murder of Matthew Shepard, Dong set out to better understand his own assault by interviewing men convicted of murdering gay men. These shockingly even-tempered and honest conversations from prisons are illustrated with brutally explicit crime scene documentation. There are no expert commentators, nor the points of view of the victims. Instead Dong produced an unflinching portrait of homophobic violence by holding a mirror up to the society that breeds it. “I did this film because I refuse to be a victim,” Dong remarked in an interview. He grappled over the decision to show graphic images of violence, ultimately deciding that it “was very necessary for the audience to see the horror of the acts.”
Several of the killers profiled in Licensed to Kill talk about their own homosexual experiences. Others remember the trauma of child abuse; some discuss killing out of fear rather than hatred. One of the most disarming interview subjects, Jay Johnson, lucidly recalls his alienation from the gay community as a biracial man, the guilt he endured from his highly religious upbringing, and his desperate reaction to an HIV diagnosis. The film does not simply force the viewer to empathize with these murderers, but points as well to the myriad issues of race, class, religious fundamentalism, neo-conservative politics, and mental illness behind an alarming pattern of violence that has only escalated in subsequent decades.
Though Dong’s film is a frightening window into homophobic violence, much has changed since the film’s release in 1997. The Anti-Violence Project reports that a majority of the victims of hate violence homicides in 2013 were transgender women, and that 67% of these victims were transgender women of color. Transgender women were also seven times more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with the police. The shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando has engendered a sense of vulnerability and political outrage, sparking discussions about gun control, the war on terror, Islamophobia, racism, toxic masculinity, and domestic violence. While these conversations are vital to any meaningful understanding of the recent tragedy, Licensed to Kill telescopes toward one fundamental question, which Dong asks of all his interview subjects: “Why did you kill a gay person?" - MW
Arthur Dong has made a number of celebrated films, including a trilogy of works about homophobia: Coming Out Under Fire (1994) which examines the origins of the military’s policy against gays in the World War II era, and Family Fundamentals (2002) which profiles the gay children of religious fundamentalist parents. His work also examines Chinese-American identity and history, including Hollywood Chinese (2007) about the depiction of Chinese-Americans in mainstream cinema, and Forbidden City (1989) which chronicles the little-known Chinese-American nightclub scene that flourished in San Francisco in the 1940s and 50s. His 1982 short film Sewing Woman about a woman’s journey from China to San Francisco for an arranged marriage was nominated for an Academy Award.
Matt Wolf is a filmmaker in New York. His first documentary Wild Combination is about the avant-garde cellist and disco producer Arthur Russell. His most recent feature Teenage, based on the book by Jon Savage, chronicles the birth of youth culture. His short films include I Remember, about the artist and poet Joe Brainard, and a forthcoming film for Time Magazine about the controversial 1991 Benetton advertisement “Pieta.”
The screening will be followed by optional small group discussions.
Tickets - $8, available at door.
Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.