THE COMING BACK OUT BALL MOVIE, Australia, 2018. Directed by Sue Thomson. 88 minutes. Rated MA (Strong coarse language.
A sound cultural, personal, anti-bigotry principle is that we need to meet people with whom we differ, whom we do not understand and that this leads to respect and appreciation, even allowing for differences in perspective.
This is certainly the principle to be brought to this documentary. The first thing to say about it is that it is about elderly people, a sympathetic look at men and women growing old, reflecting on their past, on the relationships, on their careers, on the deaths of partners. Throughout the whole film, there are a lot of interviews, with these people, men and women telling their story with sympathy, sometimes bravado, always enthusiasm.
And this is the first point of entry to appreciating these elderly people. Then, on this basis, we understand that they are members of the LGBTQI community. “Coming out” was not necessarily a part of their past. Many of them kept their sexual orientation secret, some not even aware of it until later in life and after marriage and family. But, in their old age, with changing social perspectives (in fact, the Coming Out Ball taking place two weeks before the decision on same-sex marriage through the Australian postal plebiscite), an era of greater tolerance has emerged.
A ball? This is the brain wave, creative idea of an entrepreneur, Tristram Meacham, whose creation of the ball is at the core of the film. He is an enthusiast – understatement!
The idea was to have a ball for the elderly so that they could come out in old age, even if they had never come out before. The venue for the ball was to be Melbourne Town Hall. Veteran entertainer, Robyn Archer, was to be the host and there were to be some guest entertainers including Carlotta and aboriginal opera star, Deborah Cheetham. (The latter gets the opportunity to sing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” with changed relevant lyrics.)
The film audience is introduced by a quite large range of characters, all going back into their past, describing their lives, the relationships, the fears. Some have known all their lives about their sexual orientation, others discovering it in later life. But they all grew up in a period of secrecy and/or cover-up. A number of the characters have undergone gender change. Because the interviewees are so frank, it gives the opportunity for the audience to listen, observe, reflect, understand.
Quite a lot of preparation goes into the ball, the invitees coming to dancing lessons weeks in advance, getting to know one another, getting to know the steps, a number discovering a flamboyance that had previously not emerged. There are decorations, selections of music, the orchestra, those waiting at tables, the preparation of the venue.
As expected, by the end, there is an extended treatment of the ball, the guests all lining up outside in Swanston Street, the staff waiting, the guests coming inside, eating and drinking, the music, the dancing.
Some of the regulars who were interviewed throughout the film get the opportunity to offer their reflections on the experience. One of the characters interviewed earlier was one of the first female shearers, an expert in her daily day, attending the ball but, at the end of the film, going back to the shearing shed proving that after all these years, she still has the strength and skills. She serves as a symbol for those who were part of The Coming Back Out Ball.
Backlot films Released December 6th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.