by Kevin Taylor & r & Spokane was plunged into the national media fish bowl in May when the Spokesman-Review published allegations about Mayor Jim West's sex life. National network reporters, producers and hired satellite trucks roamed the city. West himself booked a soft-boiled Q and A with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today Show.
Then everybody went away. Almost everybody.
Producers for the PBS documentary news program Frontline rented a house in Spokane and have spent about four months here filming interviews with residents for a show to be aired in fall 2006. Ah, more on that West stuff, right? You know, the conflicted, closeted, conservative Republican who spent a career legislating family values and then is revealed to be fond of young men and hot tubs. That stuff?
Well, no. This is public television, and the story is more complex and less saucy than a mere ripped-from-the-surface-headlines approach.
"For us, this is an ideal place for a documentary," Frontline producer Muriel Soenens says.
She listed four reasons the filmmakers are in Spokane: Washington's likelihood of being the next state on the front line of gay marriage (a decision is pending in the state Supreme Court), Spokane's recent passage of domestic partner benefits, the push to create a gay district here and "lastly and most obviously, not necessarily most importantly, is Jim West."
Soenens, who just left Spokane with her year-old son and fellow producer Rachel Dretzin, says the documentary will examine how communities deal with homosexuality.
"Regardless of whether [West] is gay or whether he isn't, he has created dialogue about homosexuality," says Soenens, who has spent time interviewing West. "The community is talking about it."
Unlike Colorado Springs, with James Dobson and Focus on the Family, or San Francisco, with an almost theatrical sense of gay awareness, "We wanted a place where we weren't finding obvious extremes," Soenens says. "We wanted a place where things were in the process of being worked out. A complex, in-between place."
Welcome to Spokane's new civic motto: We're complex and in-between.
"Here it's just more complicated," Soenens says. "It's both incredibly progressive, with dances sponsored by Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered and Questioning groups ... or, should people get domestic partner benefits?"
And then there's the knee-jerk recoil about inappropriate sexual behavior on West's part. Even as residents here struggle to choke out the caveat, "It's not that he's gay ..." when talking about West, the story folds into itself with layers of complication.
It's just what Frontline is looking for.
"This started with a Frontline idea on the culture wars over homosexuality," Soenens says. "Where is the situation fluid? We spoke to people in the community and found this would be a particularly ideal place for us because of the way the community is being challenged on a number of fronts."
Soenens and Dretzin have conducted hours of interviews around Spokane since arriving in August. They finished the bulk of the work by Thanksgiving and will return as needed as the documentary is being edited.
"Our story is unfolding. One of the things time affords us is to complicate the story," Soenens says.
This is Frontline, after all. Easy answers aren't the point.
"When we come into a story, we presume 50 percent of what we think we know will be turned on its head," says Soenens. "And that's happened."