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Film Review: 'Broken Heart Land' Weaves Unexpected And Tragic Tapestry Of Grief

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Broken Heart Land, an expectation-eschewing documentary from directors Jeremy and Randy Stulberg, begins with an all-too-familiar tragedy in the rural American landscape: the suicide of a gay teenager. From there it weaves a far different story than one might anticipate, opting for a complex exploration of a family struck by death and a town in the throws of an identity crisis. 

The setting, Norman, Oklahoma--home to the University of Oklahoma--is seen by many citizens as a bastion of liberal goodwill in one of the nation’s most conservative geographic regions. In reality, though, the town is largely inhabited by Christian conservatives and other folks who fall uneasily within a murky spectrum of political thought. 

BHL2Two such people, Van and Nancy Harrington, are the parents of Zack, a reserved guy who came out in high school, seemingly without significant fanfare and with ardent support from his family. We learn very little about Zack, save for his participation in the high school color guard; his sudden suicide leaves him even more of an enigma. Only when his grieving parents receive the coroners report do they, and the audience, find out that Zack was HIV-positive and had been treating himself with drugs bought on the street. It is a surprising turn of events within the film. One friend, overcome with emotion and unsure whether or not to speak on the matter, recounts the way that Zack finally told her, after over a year of hinting, about his status. The wound of his death is clearly still fresh for everyone involved, and this particular revelation throws them for a loop. The trailer, which we reported on previously, framed Zack’s HIV-status as the central mystery within the narrative, but its reveal comes early, both in the run time and in the mourning process. The film actually seems far more concerned with picking up the pieces and understanding just how great an impact Zack’s death had, particularly on his mother and rather surprisingly on small town politics.

BHL1Just before Zack’s death, he may or may not have attended the Norman town council meeting where an LGBT History Month proposal was discussed and voted on. The mystery of his attendance reflects the unknowable qualities of his personality, but it is no matter in comparison with the bigoted and disturbing diatribe unleashed by many of the town’s most influential conservatives, including Chad Williams, an assistant pastor of a local mega-church and an eventual candidate for town council. 

The dueling campaigns of Williams and an openly lesbian opponent form the backbone of much of the documentary, framed by the broken and embittered family at the center of the tragedy. Both Van and Nancy Harrington are self-proclaimed Republicans and supporters of the LGBT rights movement, an almost oxymoronic combination these days, and their understanding of politics is shaken throughout the film by national trends (see: the Tea Party) and the closer-to-home town council race. Nancy joins a Norman group called Moms Of Many (MOM), formed in the wake of Zack’s death. She learns about the representation of the LGBT community in politics, campaigns for Williams’ competitor, and, in a particularly tense scene, confronts the pastor after all of her LGBT-related questions are ignored at a debate amongst the candidates. Van is largely seen sitting on a couch at home, watching Fox News, and smoking a cigarette; the grief is palpable and nearly unbearable. 

Still, both he and Nancy traverse an arc, from disbelief and upset about Zack’s status (his keeping it from them more so than the fact that he was positive) to a state of sad but empowered motivation to create change. We eventually see them dedicate a bench in Norman to their son and march in an AIDS Walk in his memory. 

BHL3Ultimately the “broken heart land” of the film’s title seems twofold. It is a comment on the nature of grief and tragedy, rendered so vividly in the lives of the Harringtons, and it is an observation about the shifting, highly oppositional politics of a nation, and particularly the midwest. The Harringtons are a family awakened to their own faults, their political aspirations, and their beliefs. The same, unfortunately, cannot necessarily be said for Williams and others in the more conservative contingent. They stand behind a “we love everyone enough to tell them that they are wrong” facade, never owning up to what the filmmakers and the Harringtons come to believe: something, many things, must be wrong in a society where someone, Zack, would take his own life. LGBT inequality, non-comprehensive sex education, and perhaps even organized religion come under fire. While there is no conclusive reason behind Zack's suicide, beautifully-read passages of his tormented poetry and journals accompany nostalgic video footage throughout the film, giving prophetic voice to a young man no longer able to speak his mind.

Broken Heart Land is a powerful, unexpectedly political, and deeply sad documentary. At its center lies a teenager who could have lived a long, fulfilling life, given the support he deserved all along.

You can stream Broken Heart Land online at worldchannel.org, or catch it airing The World Channel through this weekend.


Oklahoma Lawyers Launch Coalition Group in Support of Marriage Equality

The Associated Press reports that some 85 attorneys from across Oklahoma are joining a coalition in support of marriage equality.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 5.56.31 PMThe group Oklahoma Lawyers for Marriage is launching its website on Monday and supports the idea that all marriages should be legally recognized.

One of the attorneys is Democratic state Rep. Emily Virgin of Norman who says she's joining the coalition because she believes marriage equality is "a matter of fairness under the law."

In January, a federal judge struck down Oklahoma’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. That case is currently before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals awaiting further ruling. 


Sally 'Gays are Worse than Terrorists' Kern's Husband Hopes to Join Her in the Oklahoma Legislature

Oklahoma Rep. Sally "gays are worse than terrorists" Kern's husband wants to join her in the legislature, the AP reports:

KernA familiar name is on the ballot in a Republican primary for the open Senate District 40 seat in northwest Oklahoma City that includes portions of Nichols Hills, Bethany, The Village and Warr Acres. Steve Kern, a 67-year-old evangelical pastor, is the husband of state Rep. Sally Kern, who made national headlines in 2008 when she said homosexuals pose a greater threat to the country than terrorism.

A vocal critic of gay marriage, Steve Kern didn't distance himself from his wife's comments, saying that "they were true in the sense that the (gay) agenda was more stealthy than the terrorists' agenda."

In a separate incident two years ago, Sally Kern was reprimanded and delivered an apology on the House floor after denigrating blacks and women during debate on an affirmative action bill.

Kern has five other Republican competitors in the June 24 primary.

Also in Oklahoma's primary is Paula Sophia, a 48-year-old transgender Army combat veteran and ex-police officer. Sophia is running for the open House District 88 seat in central Oklahoma City and would be Oklahoma's first transgender elected official if she won.


Oklahoma Tea Party Candidate Thinks Gays Should Be Stoned to Death: VIDEO

EskA tea-party candidate for the Oklahoma State House District 91 is in the news today for controversial statements made on social media in support of Old Testament-style punishment for homosexuality.

Scott Esk, who prides himself on being “100% Traditional Family Values,” started throwing out Bible verses on Facebook last July after a friend posted a link to an article about Pope Francis saying “Who am I to judge gay people?”

Esk quotes Leviticus 20:13, the “if a man who lies with a man they shall be put to death” verse, adding that “If men wink at such perversions, God may have no choice than to judge such nations with calamities.”

When asked by the friend to clarify if he really thought gays should be put to death by stoning, Esk responds:

“I think we would be totally in the right to do it. That goes against some parts of libertarianism, I realize, and I’m largely libertarian, but ignoring things that are worthy of death is very remiss.”

And in a follow-up interview with The Moore Daily yesterday, Esk made it clear his views haven’t changed. You can listen to that interview, HERE.

(via Firebrand Progressives)


Documentary Takes Aim At LGBT Prejudice, HIV/AIDS Awareness In American Heartland: VIDEO

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"Broken Heart Land," a new documentary airing this month on World Channel's program American ReFramed, invests in an in-depth look at one teen's story in order to shed light on LGBT prejudice and a lack of awareness of HIV/AIDS in middle America. Focused on Oklahoman teenager Zack Harrington, who took his life in 2010, "one week after attending a local city council meeting in support of a proposal for LGBT History Month," the documentary seems to be an emotional and intimate look at the way tragedies deeply impact the communities in which they occur.

HuffPost reports:

"Even though we live in a slightly more progressive world where gay rights issues and HIV/AIDS education have made notable strides in many large cities, Zack's tragic story is representative of hundreds of young gay teens all over Bible Belt, conservative small towns across America who are still wrestling with feelings of shame," [directors] Jeremy and Randy Stulberg said in a statement. "We hope that through the film we will be able to start a dialogue across the country in the same way that the Harringtons have done in Norman, Oklahoma and hopefully prevent future suicides from teens in smaller towns who may feel hopeless."

You can watch the documentary on World Channel when it airs on June 24th, or catch its world premiere at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco, June 21st.

For now, check out the highly emotional trailer, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Documentary Takes Aim At LGBT Prejudice, HIV/AIDS Awareness In American Heartland: VIDEO" »


Freedom to Marry Launches TV Ad in Oklahoma to Build Support for Gay Marriage: VIDEO

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Starting today, Freedom to Marry will be running a week-long television ad in Oklahoma as litigants await a ruling in the challenge to the state’s gay marriage ban currently in front of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Politco reports:

The ad is part of a larger effort to influence popular opinion around greater acceptance for gay marriage as the 10th Circuit and dozens of other cases around the country pend, with the hopes of eventually returning to the Supreme Court for a broader legalization ruling. And it plays heavily on biographical and family values appeals in the deep-red state.

Watch the 30 second spot, AFTER THE JUMP

Continue reading "Freedom to Marry Launches TV Ad in Oklahoma to Build Support for Gay Marriage: VIDEO" »


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