Interview with the director, PJ Raval, of the documentary “Before You Know It”

Interview with PJ Raval by Jonathan Joseph Ganjian 

Following the screening of his new film Before You Know It  I was able to score an interview with director PJ Raval about the process behind the film, his work as it relates to the LGBT and straight community alike and his hopes for the message behind this documentary.  Enjoy.

J:  Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview PJ, this is a great film and comes on the heels of your past success with Trinidad; what else is brewing?

I always keep quiet but I will say that yes I have a narrative feature I want to make, that a friend of mine is writing the screenplay and I have another documentary idea; which is funny because when I finished my last documentary Trinidad that was also a similar three to four years so I was like, “I’m done, I’m gonna take a break, I’ll maybe think of another documentary like six years from now, but immediately I thought of the new one, ya know?  And it was interesting because, after I made that film so many of the issues I’m looking at are these ideas of coming out; the idea of coming out as transgendered what does that mean; educating everyone and kind of like, challenging those stereotypes of, “It’s a small town so therefore they must not accept them.” when actually they do, right?  Giving that trust to community, that not everyone is discriminating.  I feel with this one I’m looking at these ideas of aging and ya know those things and so I do have a third documentary in mind and my point is that when I finish something I think it pushes me into another direction to think about.  So after making Trinidad I really thought about, “Well, what about aging and this and that?”  Now that this one’s made, I’ve had that experience and I’m having experiences like this and having conversations and I’m definitely formulating a new idea and I’m not gonna talk about it yet but for sure!

J:  What’s one thing that you, when going into the project, thought might come up in filming and actually didn’t?  Like one issue that perhaps you brought as a preconceived notion or thought oh I’m talking about aging so clearly XYZ is going to come up but didn’t?

That’s a good question, I don’t know.  I thought, you know it’s really interesting…when we were writing grants for this I had a list of like, these are potential characters and there was this, this and this and it was a lot of more things you would read on statistics but obviously I make the films that aren’s so much statistics and facts it’s more personal so it really comes down to who you find and what you found interesting.  I think what I find interesting about these three characters is I relate to them in so many ways at different stages.  So, things that are missing: someone brought up that one of the characters is not a lesbian, one of the characters is not transgender though I don’t think Dennis would consider himself trans, but maybe some similar concepts of blurring that line of gender and labels and those kinds of expectations placed upon you.  That’s kinda what I’ll say about it so in terms of things missing I don’t know.

J:  What’s something that you edited out and wish you’d kept?

Oh God, there’s so many good things it’s always difficult.  There was a whole section that I cut out about Dennis.  We allude to it, Dennis is a space fanatic, and not only space as in like Star Trek but actual like Mars Rover, outer space.  He believes in colonizing Mars, things like that and so there was a whole section like that.  I miss the section but you know of course you have to choose what you put in.  There was a whole section where Dennis talks about how he sometimes has dreams where he wakes up and he’s on Mars and it was such a crazy….but if you think about it, he would talk about how, “why don’t they send people like me to Mars, because what to we have left to lose?” that kind of thing and I don’t know there was something really cool about which unfortunately didn’t make it in.

J: What ways to you feel your work is looking to engage the queer community even further in the future?

This might not answer your question entirely but when I’m making my work I want everyone to see it, I really do.  But of course I want to it to speak to the community as well.  Part of my mission is trying to make work where you can have that intersection ya know with the straight people in the audience with the gay people in the audience.

J: Do you see yourself as a filmmaker cum activist?

Definitely a filmmaker but, it’s interesting because I’ve never thought of myself as an activist or what I do as activism.  I like telling stories.

J: But in the telling that is it’s own activism with these untold stories

Of course, I want people to feel, I want people to identify, I want people to get angry, elicit some kind of emotion some kind of something to think about something to really walk away with.  For me, it’s true kinda what you were saying earlier, I do love picking, selecting subjects and topics that are overlooked and I think that’s why I do it is because I want you to think about these things.  Something that you maybe have not thought about and now you can think about it and think about with me ‘cuz that’s what I’m thinking about right now.

J: So you like taking people on that journey behind the lens with you?

Yeah kind of you know?  It really is a bit of a trust factor especially when you’re trying to get people to help you with this film and I say, “okay well let’s go out into the community and I’m gonna meet these seniors and it’s gonna be an amazing film, trust me trust me!”  I can’t show it to you yet because it’s not there but…I will!  Here are my ideas and its really like a leap of faith.

J: Who was the most difficult group to pitch that leap of faith to?

No one really

J: Was the film something you felt, “Oh my God there were all these people waiting for this movie to happen?”

Two things:  When I was making the film, talking to grant making organizations things like that they understood the importance and they understood that WOW this would be amazing, I had a sample and I was showing them and this and that.  When it’s now a finished film right, the challenge is trying to get film distributors, film venues to understand it’s NOT just going to be gay seniors coming to see this film.  You need to open your mind a bit and see that people have all kinds of interests and good story is a good story and you will relate to it somehow.  I do think that it’s up, thank God The Lincoln Center Film Society was like I love this film. That’s great, if it wasn’t for something like this I don’t know who would get exposure to it.  And it’s a challenge because, that’s the challenge right?  People don’t find it a quote-unquote “Sexy” topic…BUT IT IS! That’s the funny thing is like, it’s relatable to everyone.  I don’t know if the crazy action film that I see is maybe relatable to everyone.  Maybe it is maybe its not some people don’t have interest in them but, everyone gets older.

J: Do feel part of the reason this film resonates is because aging is universal and because regardless of whether you’re gay, straight, transgendered whatever it is…you understand the solitude in the eyes of Dee when she’s looking around the bar in that scene (my favorite shot)? Do you feel that this film could be an opportunity to bring together older heterosexuals who maybe don’t have an understanding of the gay community?

Absolutely!  Yeah, okay so early on when I had the idea for the film and I told the producer of the film who came on, Sarah, she was like, “Wow okay this sounds like a very important topic” and we had worked together on the last film and she’s like, I love the idea of how you like to do these portraits this will be really great and I really thought, I don’t know who I’m gonna meet exactly I just need to go.  It’s true what I was saying in the Q&A a lot of it was just kind of like my intuition and just my own interest and when I met Dennis he’s like so fascinating for all these reasons and when you find someone like that who’s willing to share their story in a film and a documentary it’s gold you know what I mean?  It’s so inspiring and so for me so much of it is that and so I just trusted the process and I trusted the subjects of the film that if I find them fascinating clearly someone else has to also and if I’m moved by this hopefully someone else will be too.  I think when you’re in that kind of creative process it’s hard but I feel like so much has to happen where you have to resist the “what are people gonna think about it.” cuz I don’t even know what I think about it yet.  I have get it to the point where I understand it and that’s usually when it’s done and I’m watching it.  So, for instance when we finished the film and I started screening it we were using some written materials from way earlier that were more like when I wasn’t sure what the film what the film was gonna be like and it was statistics about LGBT seniors and the importance and then after the experience of making the film and revisiting that, the producer and I were like, “You know what, this actually doesn’t describe our film anymore, that was maybe the inspiration like we really have to look at it now for what it is.”  None of the materials early on say, “well this film is actually going to be a celebration of life!” and I think it is you know what I mean?  It’s these ideas of self-acceptance and the need for community.

J: Well, thank you so much PJ for giving our audience such a great look into what went into making Before You Know it, I think that wraps it up for us today.

Last week Jonathan wrote a review on the documentary itself which can be read here.

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