Doc traces suicide in small-town America

“Broken Heart Land,” airing on PBS World June 24, is a poignant, inspiring documentary that shows how Nancy Harrington transformed the grief she experienced from her gay son Zack’s death into activism.

Although the Bible Belt town of Norman, Okla., prides itself on being a progressive and inclusive town, talking about LGBT rights is generally met with resistance. A city council meeting where a proclamation was made to declare October LGBT History Month was met with a “mob mentality” from members of the conservative majority. Shortly after the meeting, Zack committed suicide, sending shockwaves through the community.

“Broken Heart Land,” from siblings Jeremy and Randy Stulberg, chronicles Nancy’s efforts to speak out about her son and join a PFLAG-like group, MOM — Mothers of Many. She starts campaigning for equal rights for LGBT citizens in Norman. This includes supporting a city council race for the openly gay Jackie Farley against Chad Williams, who spoke out in the meeting that preceded Zack’s suicide.

The Stulbergs’ film gets up close and personal with the Harrington family as well as with their supporters and detractors as it shows the impact that one young man’s death has on the community. Scenes of the family experiencing an awkward silence at the dinner table,or commemorating and remembering Zack are touching. Likewise, the scenes of the MOM meetings and campaign battles are compelling.

PGN spoke with openly gay filmmaker Jeremy Stulberg about his powerful film.

PGN: How did you come to learn of and tell Zack and Nancy’s story? JS: My sister was in Oklahoma at the time when this tragedy happened. We met the Harringtons at a candlelight vigil seven days after Zack died. The Harringtons opened up to us and allowed us to tell their story. They underwent an incredible transformation. Nancy was very quiet at the beginning, but she had to talk, and as the story unfolded, she blossomed.

PGN: You get some pretty intense encounters — such as Nancy confronting Chad after a League of Women’s Voters meeting. How did you get the access you did from both sides of the LGBT-rights issue? JS: We were very honest with them. This is a town really grappling with this issue. They had this painful public meeting that was difficult for both sides. The ideas of the townspeople had never come out in a public forum. Then to have Zack’s suicide thrown in was explosive. We were honest about what we wanted to do and present. We wanted to understand their perspective. It’s difficult to hear things that some [interviewees] said about gay people or other minorities, but I would just listen and absorb it and take it in and be a blank slate. They had the opportunity to speak for themselves. Being in close proximity to them and understanding their complexities was very eye-opening. Each side knew we were filming with the others. They respected that and understood it would be more powerful if both sides were represented. We are dealing with this evolution of LGBT rights in this microcosm, where people’s views are in flux, evolving and changing in a very public way.

PGN: The film shows how personal change becomes political. What can you say about making a gay-rights film in the heartland? JS: There are, in many ways, two different Americas. There are states where LGBT rights are granted (e.g., marriage) but there are shocking oversights that we still have to realize are happening in the heartland. People who live in red-state/small-town America — especially gay people — have a different experience entirely than folks in cities/blue states who take rights for granted. How can we as LGBT people mobilize in areas where it’s really needed? People shouldn’t have to move from their homes and families because they don’t have hospital-visitation rights. That’s shocking to me as someone who lives in New York, but that’s the reality for these people on a daily basis. It is oppressive.

PGN: You read Zack’s diary entries and show home movies of Zack to give him a voice and show viewers glimpses of what he was like. That must have been painful. how did you select what images and entries Hnd how much of Zack to show? JS: The Harrington family was incredible, because once we gained their trust — we didn’t ask them for these things — they made a decision as a family. They could have not given us the diary, or home-video footage. It was really a gift. We went through his entire diary and picked out the relevant moments. It’s heartbreaking to read that material. We wanted Zack’s story to intersect with Nancy’s own coming-out to the MOMs. We wanted there to be some synergy between Nancy’s journey and her son’s.

PGN: The election campaign is an interesting facet to the story. How did you come to tell this part of the story? JS: It just happened. We wanted to make a character-driven verite documentary. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. We wanted to make a film about this family and what they went through. Nancy became the protagonist, but we also wanted to make a film about this town. It started with this horrific town meeting, and the seeds that were sown became the plot of the film. That became a microcosm of American political process. These were the same themes we were dealing with with Zach and his family.

PGN: Nancy asks in the film, “How did I get to this place?” How did you get to the place where you became an activist filmmaker? JS: I don’t think of myself as an activist filmmaker at all, but I don’t think you can witness this story as it unfolds and not be moved by it. This film happens to lend itself to political [action]. There are aspects that resonate politically and it serves as a call to action.