Interviews

Tribeca 2021 Women Directors: Meet Kristine Stolakis – “Pray Away”

Interview by Cody Corrall 

Kristine Stolakis is a director whose films explore power, politics, and prejudice — and the way they unfold in real people’s lives. Stolakis’ directorial debut, “The Typist,” cracked open the untold story of a closeted Korean War veteran tasked with writing the military dishonorable discharges of outed LGBTQ seamen. “Where We Stand,” which was released by The Atlantic and nominated for a BAFTA, chronicled a group of Mormon women fighting for equal rights inside their church.

“Pray Away” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.

This interview was conducted and originally published in April 2020. 

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

KS: For me, “Pray Away” was a personal journey to understand my uncle, who experienced conversion therapy and its traumatic aftermath after coming out as trans as a child. He spent his lifetime believing that being straight and cisgender was the only way to be psychologically healthy and spiritually accepted.

It wasn’t until I discovered leaders of the movement, people who claimed that they had themselves changed from gay to straight who were teaching others to do the same, that I understood the depth of his hope and his resulting trauma when he, of course, was unable to change himself.

Who are these people who say they’ve changed? Why do they claim this? This was the beginning of what’s become a four-year journey of making “Pray Away.” As time has gone on, the film has become an inside look at the “pray the gay away” movement that I hope ultimately shows the public the harm of the practice, despite the good intentions of many of who were and remain involved.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

KS: It took some time before I transitioned from being transfixed by the topic of conversion therapy or the “ex-gay movement” to believing this topic could be a powerful documentary film. My own filmmaking practice starts in deep research. I have a background in cultural anthropology, and before I zone in on how I want to tell I story, I like to be steeped in the topic as much as I can.

My research eventually led me to former leaders who had since come out, denounced the movement, and are now working to stop it. This moment, of finding these former leaders’ online apologies, was when I transitioned from being a filmmaker with a seed of an idea to a director determined to make a film.

Their change of heart, and their vantage point to now be on the other side where they can put into words why they did what they did, allowed “Pray Away” to have an intimate power analysis of why this movement continues to thrive. It also begs ethical questions I’ve found central to this movement — the complicated type of responsibility these people have to face their pasts when many of them are also survivors of the movement themselves.

When you believe you are doing the right thing, and when you are taught that the only way to be accepted in your family, community, and society at large is to be straight and cisgender, there is a lot of motivation to believe change is possible.

Many leaders get caught in a situation where being an ex-gay leader is the only way to pay their family’s bills. I’m not trying to excuse their actions — and many in interviews explicitly said they make no excuses for what they did — but understanding them gave me deep insight into how power works in this world and why so many leaders lead for so long. And in spending time interviewing these former leaders now, people who are deeply critical of the movement they once led, I also hope some in the movement today see an eventual path out.

We then flushed out the story by including someone who primarily experienced the movement as a survivor, who spent nearly a decade in an “ex-gay” program in Texas that continues today, and a current self-identified “‘ex-trans’ leader.” The survivor experienced deep trauma at the hands of this movement. And, despite our differences, I am thankful that the current leader allowed us to film with him.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

KS: Conversion therapy is a practice, but it is also a movement. There is so much that binds this belief system together beyond the practice the pseudo-counseling many of us picture when we think of conversion therapy. To be clear, this pseudo-counseling absolutely exists — both by licensed counselors and un-licensed counselors, the latter of which are generally religious leaders teaching outdated and disproved psychological ideas of why someone is LGBTQ.

But beyond that counseling experience, the ex-gay world is an immersive experience where it is easy to constantly surround yourself with messages that change is possible. There are conferences, peer-to-peer meet-ups, books, films, blogs, hashtags, and religious ministries filled with people who say in one way or another that change is possible.

When you are not participating in the movement actively, those beliefs stick with you in your more intimate moments: in conversations with friends and family, in alone time and in prayer, every time you feel an attraction towards someone of the same-sex. This is why self-punishment and, devastatingly, suicide are a part of this world. It is the ultimate expression of being taught that something essential inside of you is broken and needs fixing.

The other thing I’d say, which I understand can be hard for some people to hear, is that many people I’ve met running this movement have good intentions. They are not monsters; this is not a movement run by a few bad apples. Again, many are survivors themselves.

What I’ve learned is that this movement is a system, and when leaders defect and leave the world, there are always more people willing to take their place. As one of the former leaders says in our film, it is the underlying belief system that being gay or trans is change-worthy that’s the real problem. As long as homophobia and transphobia exist, conversion therapy will continue in some form in our culture. And it will continue to traumatize people.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

KS: The people who we filmed with were incredibly vulnerable with us, and receiving that vulnerability as respectfully, professionally, and compassionately as we could was something my entire team worked very hard to do. It is extremely vulnerable for someone who was in a conversion therapy residential program for nearly a decade to go on the record saying that.

For many survivors, there is embarrassment that many took themselves to some kind of counseling for so long. It is also vulnerable for former leaders to share their stories and anticipate judgement for their past actions, even if they have disavowed them and are working to stop conversion therapy today. And for the current leader, who sincerely believes that what he doing is right, there is vulnerability in choosing to be in a “secular” film. He knows his story is weaved together with people who are critical of the movement.

But what helped is collaborating with such an incredible team along the way. My producing partners Jessica Devaney and Anya Rous of Multitude Films, our director of photography Melissa Langer and all the other cinematographers who got to know those we filmed with intimately, and our intuitive editor Carla Gutierrez helped bring this film home despite every hurdle. There in no other group of film professionals I’d rather weather a storm with.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

KS: We financed the film independently through a combination of grants from individuals and institutions like Catapult, Chicken & Egg, Perspective Fund, and the Tribeca Film Institute, along with equity investment from Blumhouse and individuals through the Cinereach SFFILM Invest program.

However, for independently financed films, the last push to close the budget gap often happens in the window in the lead up to the festival premiere. As a result of the economic impact of COVID on the film funding landscape, we are struggling to close our budget gap to complete the film — even with such an experienced team of producers and executive producers.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

KS: My path to becoming a filmmaker was windy, but I ultimately chose this career because I believe there is no more powerful force than film to shed a light on the issues of our times and document our shared humanity. Documentary is the manifestation of everything that matters to me most — art, journalism, social change, speaking truth to power, honesty, empathy, and having meaningful conversations about hard things. It is an essential part of the nuts and bolts of making social change.

And directing in particular forces me to think in this multifaceted way I find deeply fulfilling. It’s my job to be at the top of my craft, to use all at my disposal to make the most impactful cinematic experience that I can, all the while thinking deeply about social change. Being a director is my dream job. I cannot imagine doing anything else.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

KS: Best advice: Your best idea is often your first idea.

Worst advice: If you’re a woman in film and want a family, freeze your eggs.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

KS: I have seen time and time again brilliant female directors be taken half as seriously as their male counterparts. In our world, a woman’s ambition is so often seen as unearned bravado or selfishness, and our mistakes are seen as proof that we are unfit for the job — whereas a man’s ambition is seen as leadership, and their mistakes are seen as brave vulnerability.

Don’t let that sexism shake you. Don’t internalize that message. It isn’t a reflection on you or the worth of your ideas — it is a reflection of the sexism that remains in our industry. And this judgement, this intimate manifestation of power and prejudice, makes our industry even harder for women of color, for LGBTQ directors, for people with disabilities. You have to jump twice as high, be three times as smart, and make half the mistakes. It’s unfair. Our industry has a lot of work to do to become truly fair and equitable.

It is a ridiculous notion that anyone wanting to share a story about their experience of the world is selfish. I’ve gotten this reaction so many times over the years, people essentially asking me, “Well who do you think you are to want to direct? Are you that special?” But the more I’ve thought about this, the less sense this judgement makes. When someone makes a great piece of art, do we ever turn the artist and go “Jeez, what a selfish thing you’ve done?” No! Of course not. Great art is transcendent, it is a gift. Female directors, we want your gifts!

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

KS: I feel like we all need a feel good story right now, so I’ll share one of my many favorites that’s on the lighter side — “Bend It Like Beckham” by Gurinder Chadha. It is such a stellar mix of intimacy, levity, and a surprisingly smart analysis of racism, sexism, and homophobia. I also have a soft spot for inspirational sports stories. And it has a really happy ending, which I feel like we could all use these days.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

KS: Let me start by saying that ultimately I am incredibly thankful I can do my job at home, and that I am healthy and safe. In our present circumstances, that feels like a remarkable thing. Big picture, a lot of my time is being spent with the “Pray Away” team working through the challenges of doing a remote launch. Despite it being an insane time to launch a film, we are making progress that I’m really proud of.

I’m also taking advantage of “Pray Away’s” festival run being on pause to develop my next feature. There are a few ideas brewing, all a continuation of using film to get an inside look at systems of power. And honestly, besides COVID-19 changing my travel schedule this spring, the nature of my creative process for idea development isn’t all that different in the context of COVID-19.

Directing a documentary is actually a surprisingly solitary existence. You go through high intensity moments of being social — being on a shoot, spending intense stretches with your editor, participating in industry events — but overall, you spend a lot of time alone planning, creating, and thinking. So, it has provided great training for how to remain productive and creative during these times.

I could do another entire interview about how I structure my days, and what I do to keep the artistic juices flowing, but it involves a lot of journaling, intentional research, and dedicated time away from email and social media.

I’ve also found having some kind of creative pursuit that isn’t filmmaking to be incredibly fruitful for developing films. I’ve picked up piano again, which I really only played through middle school, and it’s been such an enlivening way to work through creative blocks. It is a strange time that I would have never, ever wished for, but given the circumstances, it is a strangely special time to create.

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