MA 15+, 91 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Peter who? Just in case you aren’t sure you have the right person in mind, the lively montage that opens this documentary is a powerful reminder of the lifetime of protest that Peter Tatchell represents. Storming pulpits, attempting citizen arrests of dubious foreign leaders visiting London, travelling alone to former Communist countries to protest the persecution of gays.
The list of LGBTQ campaigns that he has been supporting during 53 years of activism is astounding, and as a result this doco is bursting at the seams. Even so, it doesn’t seem possible that all the protests this famous Australian expat, human rights activist is known for, and loathed for by some, could possibly be included.
After setting the scene, the filmmaker, Australian/British writer-director, Christopher Amos, starts the narrative in Melbourne where Tatchell was born and raised in a strictly observant Pentecostal Christian household. Life at home was difficult for him but he was flourishing at school.
It was the sixties and he was already politicised. He became head prefect, despite or because of his left-wing radical views, elected by the school’s grassroots democratic system.
He felt strongly about the need to be proud as a gay man and was an organiser of the first Gay Pride march
By paying close attention to the reports of the Black civil rights protest movement in the US, he began adapting their methods to his own purposes. Naturally, he was active in the Vietnam anti-war movement of the time and to avoid conscription he left Australia in 1971, arriving in London at the age of 19, just as the Gay Liberation movement was taking off.
Tatchell felt strongly about the need to be proud as a gay man and was one of the organisers of the first Gay Pride march in Britain in 1972. He was wasting no time in his adopted home.
From one stepping stone to the next, Tatchell demonstrated by himself or with supporters, in England and abroad over the following decades, acquiring a name for himself as a deeply committed and courageous gay activist and human rights campaigner.
To review and discuss this remarkable journey with Tatchell, now 69, the filmmakers have mustered broadcaster Stephen Fry and veteran actor Ian McKellen. They are of course notable gay celebrities in their own right.
Excerpts from the interview between McKellen and Tatchell are scattered throughout. From time to time the camera rests on McKellen, wise and benevolent like his alter-ego Gandalf, as he studies this uniquely energetic and brave campaigner who has dedicated his life to worthy causes. There is no shortage there. There’s plenty that needs to be set right in the world.
Fry describes him as a performance artist, McKellen wonders if Tatchell has been foolhardy or brave, or perhaps both. In a brief snippet from Elton John, an executive producer, he says the entire gay community is indebted to Tatchell.
Opinion is not all positive. Some very testy views are expressed, mainly archival, from when Tatchell was a thorn in the side of many. A fellow activist gently observes that his confrontational tactics did ‘not always’ help.
He has quite a record in civil disobedience, and there can be no doubting his courage
George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, makes a surprising appearance. It’s all the more astonishing for the fact that Tatchell once claimed to have publicly outed a group of Anglican bishops whose views on homosexuality were hypocritical.
Even fellow activists weren’t happy with this, questioning his confrontational stance and his preparedness to do anything ‘to create a headline’. As McKellen observed quietly, he wasn’t popular with everyone, but as Tatchell countered, none of the bishops said anything against gays afterwards.
Another episode that made Tatchell enemies was his stand as a British Labour Party candidate for the seat of Bermondsey during the 1980s. The level of homophobia it elicited is now incredible.
Some touching footage records a reunion with Tatchell’s elderly mother, Mardi, on a visit to Australia. Although her Christian views cannot be reconciled with her son’s life choices, the two appear close and affectionate.
Director Amos has deftly included many aspects of Tatchell’s life while managing to retain a coherent narrative, but I still wonder where the fierce drive comes from. The picture would have been more complete with more probing in this area.
Peter Tatchell has quite a record in civil disobedience, and there can be no doubting his courage. John Pilger, Julian Assange, Geoffrey Robertson, Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell… There must be something in the water.