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Preaching beyond the choir

Missoula filmmaker looks at love and religion in the Deep South

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In Paige Williams' powerful documentary, Mississippi Queen, we only know her as Mama. She looks stern and troubled throughout the film, choosing her words carefully. That's why it hurts when Mama looks straight into the camera and, without hesitation, says, "It's not who you are."

For the Missoula filmmaker, that line still burns. Mama, Williams' mother, refuses to accept her daughter's lifestyle. In fact, Williams' parents are so adamantly opposed to what they coldly refer to as "same-sex attraction" that they founded Mississippi's only ex-gay ministry, a group dedicated to helping gay men and women get right with the Lord by suppressing their sexuality.

"That line killed me," says Williams. "I couldn't even look at the footage for probably six months. The thing is, I thought when I went down there that our relationship was at a certain point, and then she said things that made me think back to when I was in high school and she was threatening me with a gun."

Mississippi Queen cuts to the very definitions of love, religion, sexuality and family. Williams calls her relationship with her parents "extremely loving and extremely honest." But when it comes to her long-term relationship with a woman, and how that relationship meshes with her parents' devout Southern Baptist beliefs, Williams says they agree to disagree.

"Mama may not like it and she may not approve," says Williams, "but it is who I am. As much as she'd like to think I may change, I can't."

To her credit, Williams uses her film to at least better understand her parents' perspective. She traveled throughout the Deep South and spoke with other ex-gay ministers, her parents' minister, members of the gay community and people Williams describes as "ex-ex-gay." Each interview unfurls without judgment or argument—hell-fire damnation and measured explanations receive equal time.

"I went into it with a very two-sided approach," explains Williams, who received her master's from the University of Montana's Media Arts program in 2006. "I didn't want to make anyone a mockery and I wanted to respect everyone. I thought from the very beginning that this film could start an important dialogue. I didn't want to preach just to the choir, because then only the choir hears you."

The result makes for emotional and candid discussion. In an early scene, Williams interviews Wendy Leger, an ex-gay minister from Louisiana who used to date women. Leger says homosexuality is not a choice—something not often said in the ex-gay community—but that she can choose how to act on her homosexual feelings.

In a different interview, another ex-gay minister, Sarah Cart, admits nothing in her is attracted to men, but that she's comfortable with God's path for her. "God is my outlet," she says. "He is my intimacy today."

Then there's Greg Belser, the minister of Williams' parents' church, who clutches a Bible throughout his interview and points with conviction to Leviticus 18, which states, "You must not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." In the only thing resembling a retort, Williams flashes text underneath the rest of the interview, mentioning other things Leviticus admonishes—like haircuts.

"I was surprised by almost everyone we spoke to," says Williams. "There were times when everything in me wanted to fight and fight what they were saying. But the thing is, you're never going to change their mind."

While Williams realizes she won't necessarily change anyone's mind, she does hope the 63-minute film promotes a larger conversation about overcoming differences. So far, it has. During an April screening in Jackson, Miss., her parents helped field questions during a talkback session that Williams describes as "half Baptist and half gay—something you don't always see in Jackson without a fight." The film also collected the audience award at South Carolina's Indie Grits Film Festival and Best Documentary at the Delta International Film Festival in Mississippi. It premieres in Missoula at the Wilma Theatre June 18 before screening as part of the Montana Pride Celebration in Kalispell June 20.

"My parents loved it," says Williams. "They thought it was honest and fair. They're proud of me. They said that."

Her parents' pride still doesn't overshadow the lingering agree-to-disagree sentiment. Williams says Mama demonstrated great growth in understanding over two years of filming Mississippi Queen, but understanding and acceptance are still miles apart. For instance, Mama reveals in the film that she was more hurt by her daughter dating women than she was by the death of her parents.

"That right there, that we will never get over," says Williams. "I get that. All I can say is, I'm going to pray for her to get over that just like she'll pray for me. But I don't think either of us will ever get what we want." The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:'",,"")>

Mississippi Queen makes its Montana premiere at the Wilma Theatre Thursday, June 18. A reception with music and food begins at 7 PM, with a talkback following the screening. $5. The film will also screen at the Red Lion Fireside Room in Kalispell June 20, at noon.

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