Interview: Denis Parrot, director of Coming Out

In the French documentary Coming Out, filmmaker Denis Parrot edited YouTube videos in which young people announce their homosexuality to their families.



Ariane Papillon: To begin, could you tell me about the adventure of this film? Did you first wanted to make a film about coming-out and the LGBT community, then you found out these images? Or did the meeting with these images immediately give rise to the desire of a film on this subject?



Denis Parrot: Two years ago, I came across a YouTube video: a young man announcing his homosexuality to his grandmother on the phone and filming himself with his webcam. We could feel his immense difficulty in speaking, the fear of not being understood or accepted. We also guessed that he had been anticipating this moment for months or even years. The video lasted ten minutes, and for nine minutes, before he could say anything, there were many silences, banal everyday sentences. This video moved me a lot, not only because of the device, which was very simple, a little shaky, but also because of what it revealed in its silences. Then I saw that there were on YouTube, not one or two videos such as this one, but thousands of them, from different countries. It’s quite an amazing phenomenon. I didn’t immediately have the idea of making a film about it, but I knew right away that there was something in those images that I wanted to deal with.



AP: In the credits, we can read the sentence “Thanks to all the people who made this film possible by authorizing the reproduction of their video in this documentary”. How did you get in touch with the filmmakers? Did the Law oblige you to obtain their permission, or was it rather a moral requirement ?



DP. : For legal reasons of image reproduction rights, of course I contacted all the people present in the film, but also and above all because I wanted each person to understand and adhere to what I wanted to make. It was a big job to contact all these young people and their parents, all over the world. By showing them the editing already done, most of these young people were enthusiastic about the project and immediately gave their agreement.


AP.: I first saw the film in the cinema when it was released in France. Then I saw it again 8 months later, at home, thanks to the link that you kindly sent to me. I realized by watching it a second time that I remembered all the characters. I had the feeling that I had developed a familiarity, an intimacy with them. I think it was increased by this double viewing experience: first, the palpable emotion shared with the other people in the theatre, then the arrival of these characters “in” my apartment. This feeling of closeness is quite common when following someone’s YouTube channel, but it is more difficult to achieve after watching a single video. In your movie, each character is present only once, except for Adam, who comes back for a few seconds at the end with his skipping rope. To my opinion, this feeling is the product of two elements: the conversation created by the editing between these different confessions; and its counterpart, the duration and the cinematic situation, which puts us in a situation of prolonged attention and makes it possible to facilitate empathy. Does this diagnosis speak to you? How would you define your willingness to bring to the cinema these images intended for the web ?


D.P.: Your diagnosis is absolutely right. In tackling such an intimate subject, it seemed obvious to me that showing it in a movie theater was appropriate. I was convinced that the discovery of these images would not give the same impression and strength if they were discovered on the small screen.



A.P.: Your intervention as a filmmaker, as an artist, supported by your team, takes place on several levels: cutting out the videos, adding sound design (sound effects, atmosphere, music, mixing), inserting title cards, choosing the order and succession of the clips. How were these choices made and what was your method? Did you set yourself any prohibitions, such as cutting out some passages, cropping the images?



D.P. : The process was done in several stages. First of all, I watched more than 1,200 coming-out videos on social networks, uploaded between 2012 and 2018, to understand this phenomenon on the Internet and to get an idea of what the film would look like.  At the same time, a translation work was carried out for the videos shot in a language that I didn’t understand, but in which I felt the potential. Then, I worked hard on the writing to make sure that all the themes I wanted to address appeared in the film in a balanced and relevant way. I considered these videos as contemporary archive images, as photographs of our time, of the 2010’s. These videos couldn’t have existed 20 years ago and they won’t be the same in 20 years. They are part of our society, they talk about our current western world. I also wanted to allow these images to exist fully and permanently, so that they don’t end up buried under the graves of new videos on YouTube, but instead that they can echo to each other. I also had the idea that all these distinct speeches would form a more global speech at the end of the film, as if there was an invisible thread that connects all these testimonies, that the whole would be different from the sum of its parts. My producers, Claire Babany and Éléonore Boissinot, were very supportive and helpful until the right balance was found in the final cut. Afterwards, Olivier Laurent, the sound editor, and Bruno Mercère, the mixer, did a great job of highlighting the silences, the breaths and the backgrounds of each sequence. Sasha Savic, the calibrator, also incredibly balanced the colors of the very diverse video sources to create a homogeneous universe.

A.P.: Why did you choose to add title cards with time indications to some (not all) clips? Is it to evoke the form of the diary, to highlight the immediacy, the simultaneity of these virtual conversations?


D.P. : Absolutely, it reminds me of the form of the diary. I also wanted to show how these few words spoken to parents, family or close friends, are a moment of tension after months, years during which these young people have kept everything in them. But, through these videos, the coming out is also – it must be acknowledged – a kind of suspended moment full of suspense: what will be the parents’ reaction? Are they prepared for this eventuality or will they come down to earth with a bang? Many young people fear a negative reaction, ore even to loose their parents’ love. That’s why I’ve indicated the time of each video: after this revelation, their life will not be quite the same, there will be no turning back.


A.P.: Why did you choose to give only the first names of the characters in the title cards, and their full names in the credits?


D.P.: This is also in line with the idea of the diary, of confidence.


A.P.: I noticed that there was no systematism in the title cards: for example, sometimes there is the first name before the place, sometimes the opposite. What logic determined this choice?


D.P.: It depended on whether I wanted to emphasize the importance of the place or the first name. There are also testimonies for which I didn’t indicate a time, because they were more general words.


A.P.: How did you work on the sound? Did you want to discreetly suggest associations of ideas? I think for example of children’s voices playing, or a train noise that seems to link two territories, Japan and Utah.


D.P. : Olivier Laurent, the sound editor, and Bruno Mercière, the mixer, worked a lot to add, without distorting the original videos, atmospheres that almost unconsciously reinforce our feelings. Indeed, the train created a link between the different countries. There are small additions in each sequence, like the one with Adam where Olivier Laurent had the idea to add a thunderstorm atmosphere followed by a light shower, which then put Adam and his mother in a kind of cocoon. I loved this idea that reinforced the intimacy of the situation.



A.P.: The editing gives resonance to similar or identical expressions: “I didn’t choose”, “I felt guilty”, “I prayed to God to deliver me”, “I’ve always known it”…. Did you select the videos in particular so that they echo each other so strongly? Or is it representative enough of how these videos respond to each other on the internet and how they contribute to create and strengthen a community?


D.P.: It’s pretty representative of what I found online. I was very important to me to make sure that it persisted in the final cut. I also wanted to show different paths and different reactions and make sure that certain themes were represented: self-building, the way others look at you, acceptance by your family, but also, in a way, the need to test the love of your parents, which is undoubtedly shared by all teenagers and young adults, whether they are LGBT or not. I didn’t want to make a desperate and hopeless film either, but a film that shows various comings out.

Some go well, some don’t. I still wanted to focus on the families who react “normally”. A way of setting an example. That’s why my film ends with Loren, the girl who tells her grandmother, who, in fact, had understood everything a long time ago and is taking it very well. Things can be simple, they should be normal, banal.


A.P.: Your personal intervention, as an author, is done discreetly, through the choices listed above. Nevertheless, you also very subtly explicit who is speaking, by opening the film with an “I”, with the very first title card of the film: “When I was young, there was no internet”. With this sentence, you seem to both announce your belonging to the LGBT community and perhaps admit that, in retrospect, you would have found comfort with these videos. You thus seem to pay tribute to the salutary aspect of these coming-out videos and online testimonies, but also to place yourself alongside your characters. Is this an interpretation that seems correct to you? How did you design this opening title card?


D.P.: Your interpretation is totally correct. My generation has grown up, just like those before, without the Internet. It was very difficult to find positive role models to identify with, just as it was impossible for most of us teenagers to exchange with other young LGBT people. When I saw the first video, I thought it would have done me a lot of good at the time. I chose these videos because I recognize myself in all these young people. I was thinking exactly the same when I was a teenager, asking myself the same questions.


A.P.: Part of the end of the film shows a series of trans comings out : people claiming that the gender they were assigned at birth is not the one they recognize themselves in. You didn’t disseminate this type of coming-out in the film, and placed this part after a dozen or so coming-out videos that deal with sexual orientation and not gender identity.  How did you make this editing choice? Was it a didactic concern, for the people not concerned? You sometimes chose to show images of people before and after their transition (for example, we see photos of Cole when he was little, in a little girl’s body, then a video of him after probably having undergone hormone treatment). Was this material available on the Internet or was it provided directly to you ?


D.P.: Absolutely, I wanted to be didactic, so that the film could be shown to as many people as possible, even people who are not at all aware of the subject. It was important to differentiate between sexual orientation and gender identity, so that the viewer couldn’t be confused. Cole insisted on showing pictures of his transition, in order to explain it well and be as clear as possible. Other trans people don’t like to show pictures of themselves before their transition, but Cole felt it was important.


A.P.: One moment of the film, the 12th video, introduces us to Artem, a young Russian violinist living in Canada. This clip appears to me as a kind of statement. I’m quoting the French subtitles here: “We’re not coming out for straight people to know. Nor the believers. Nor those who hate us. We make as much noise as possible so that people like us, who are afraid and who cannot be themselves, know that they are not a mistake, that they are not alone”. Here I feel a perfect coincidence between the objectives of the filmmakers and yours. What do you think about this?



D.P.: Exactly, Artem sums up the film’s purpose perfectly. In a previous cut, I concluded the film with Artem, it worked very well, but I decided to change the order of the sequences, because it was a little too solemn, a little too hard, and I wanted to make a soft film, full of hope.


A.P.: Who and what was your film intended for ?


D.P. : I would like to say: to everyone ! When the idea for the film came up, I was thinking of these young people. Some of them feel lost. I was also thinking of their parents. Some colleagues and friends had the honesty to tell me that they didn’t know how they would react if their child told them they were gay or trans. And I’m talking about people who live in 2020, in a very urban environment, and who are pretty progressive… But parents – at least straight parents – still have a hard time imagining their child being different. Some of them are afraid to do wrong if their child comes out. I don’t have any political or associative militant background, but this film is my small contribution to help move the lines. I want to raise awareness among parents: your child may be gay, lesbian, bi or trans and you don’t know it. You didn’t choose it, but your child didn’t choose it either. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just the way it is. Luke, one of the young British kids in the film, when told that he chose to be gay, retorts: “When did you choose to be straight? ” . It’s very fair to reverse the question. No one chooses their gender identity or sexual orientation. If parents were prepared for this possibility, things might be easier. The suicide rate among LGBT youth is high, as is the number of youth who are kicked out of school. That’s the reason for this film, there’s still a lot of work to be done…


A.P.: What was the reception of the film in theaters, in the press, in France and abroad?


D.P.: Following a screening at a festival, several people came to tell me how much the film had moved them and made them think as parents about how they would react in this situation. These people told me that they had made progress on this issue. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do: to move the lines so that parents don’t faint when their child tells them that he or she is L, G, B or T. I have presented the film in many festivals and it was very well received. There are also still screenings in schools (middle schools and high schools).




[This interview took place by email exchange in February 2020].