Review: ‘Coming Out Under Fire’

Arthur Dong's powerful documentary, "Coming Out Under Fire," informs the current debate over gays and lesbians in the military by viewing the issue from a historical perspective. By focusing on undaunted homosexuals who served as soldiers in World War II, the film provides some context for President Clinton's 1993 effort to lift the ban on gays in the military and the ongoing national debate.

Arthur Dong’s powerful documentary, “Coming Out Under Fire,” informs the current debate over gays and lesbians in the military by viewing the issue from a historical perspective. By focusing on undaunted homosexuals who served as soldiers in World War II, the film provides some context for President Clinton’s 1993 effort to lift the ban on gays in the military and the ongoing national debate. Many viewers may want to see this timely, informative, technically accomplished docu in theaters before it’s shown on public TV and in other venues.

Fascinating docu is based on the acclaimed 1990 book “Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II,” by Allan Berube, who served here as historian and co-writer. Director and co-writer Dong masterfully interweaves the tales of nine courageous men and women, all sharing in detail their personal memories of daily military life.

“They made you lie,” says one man. “They made you live an invisible life.” Indeed, “don’t ask, don’t tell” became by necessity the motto of patriotic homosexuals.

Despite their varied backgrounds, motivations to join the war effort and military careers, the stories are united by the individuals’ strength and willingness to serve the country in the face of oppression and humiliating treatment. Docu shows that the military proved most resourceful in its methods, subjecting known gays and lesbians to dehumanizing interrogations, medical examinations, incarceration in “queer stockades” and hospitals for the criminal and mentally insane, and stigmatization as “sex perverts.”

Though pic’s overall tone is serious and investigative, it also contains compelling personal stories that make it riveting and entertaining. Some talk about how they devised subtle ways to identify other gays and communicate through newsletters that used campy Dorothy Parker lingo; one publication was called Myrtle Bitch; a former WAC fondly recalls her infatuation and first romance with another woman. Being black and gay was a “double whammy,” one member mournfully testifies.

Dong, who made the 1983 Oscar-nominated “Sewing Woman,” a touching portrait of his mother’s emigration from China to the U.S., properly balances his work between serious, matter-of-fact illumination of a shameful chapter in American history and lighter, though sensitive, treatment of the human stories.

Framing the docu are dramatic scenes from the 1993 Senate hearings, which expose how the American government continues to perpetuate and reaffirm its ideology — and practice — of discriminating against homosexual soldiers. This contemporary evidence lends greater poignancy to the numerous cases of dishonorable discharge of valiant homosexuals.

Tech credits are first-rate, particularly Stephen Lighthill’s polished lensing and Veronica Selver’s seamless editing of invaluable archival footage of medical examinations, psychiatric sessions, sex education lectures, statistics and interviews. Deservedly cited by the Sundance jury for its technical distinction, “Coming Out Under Fire” is accomplished and satisfying emotionally and politically.

Coming Out Under Fire

Production

A Deep Focus production. Produced, directed by Arthur Dong. Written by Allan Berube, Dong, based on Berube's book.

Crew

Camera (B&W), Stephen Lighthill; editor, Veronica Selver; music, Mark Adler; sound, Lauretta Molitor. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, Jan. 24, 1994. (Also in Berlin Film Festival.) Running time: 70 MIN.

With

Narrator: Salome Jens.
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