The exposure of the late Jim West's secret life as Right-Bi Guy seeking love in gay Internet chat rooms has become the focus of Frontline's "A Hidden Life," which airs on Spokane Public Television's KSPS channel 7 on Tuesday at 9 pm.
Local gays find the shift in focus disappointing and have canceled a plan to have a catered public viewing.
"West was always a very important piece of the story; it's what brought us to Spokane in the first place," independent producer Rachel Dretzin says.
Dretzin, Muriel Soenens and Caitlin McNally are the independent documentary filmmakers, Ark Media, who produce shows for Frontline. A year ago, Dretzin and Soenens rented a house and spent four months in Spokane. They said then that West was the least of their interests. They were drawn here more by a pending state Supreme Court decision on gay marriage and a city measure to push for domestic partner benefits that included same-sex couples. These, the producers said, were livelier story threads about living openly and gay in a small city than simply exploring Spokane's reaction to revelations that its mayor, a conservative anti-gay Republican, was caught seeking sex with young men.
Stories evolve, as stories often do, but "A Hidden Life" seems to have twisted away from its origins thanks to a hefty dose of torque from Frontline executives who wanted a story that is less complex and more familiar. And with the revelations about Mark Foley and Ted Haggard, the hypocritical gay Republican storyline is hard for any news outfit to ignore.
Soenens, in an e-mail exchange, told The Inlander that she and Dretzin tried to include both the "complex and in-between" reality of being gay in Spokane as well as West's flaming downfall. Ultimately, she writes, executives at Frontline "... realized the constraints of the story and the need to do one story well rather than two stories weakly."
This disappoints Bonnie Aspen, who was among many Spokane residents who had day-to-day activities filmed for the documentary last year.
"We had a very big public viewing planned, but we've canceled that," says Aspen, chair of the Vision Committee, a group working to make gays more visible in everyday Spokane. A venue with a live feed and a caterer had been lined up, she says. "It was going to be a wonderful hour."
The party was canceled because, Aspen explains, local gays are not interested in watching yet another conflicted, closeted Republican man face public humiliation over his sexuality.
"We were hoping for something that shows more than the life of an outed conservative politician ... ['A Hidden Life'] is one story about what it's like to be in the closet and not live an authentic life," Aspen says.
She was far happier with the original intent. "I think of all the footage they took of brave people in this community who are actively living authentic lives," as openly gay people in a largely conservative place. "Frontline chose to go with the bigger headline. I am so disappointed."
Aspen says, "Ark Media got on the phone to many of us on the same day to let us know things were not going to be the same. The way Caitlin explained it to me they had been in fairly intense negotiations for a couple of months with Frontline about maintaining the original focus of the program."
Aspen says a meeting of the Vision Committee in her home -- for a discussion of how gays can be more visible in mainstream Spokane -- is instead framed in "A Hidden Life" as gays reacting to West's ejection from the mayor's office during last year's recall election.
She adds, "The people that made it have such good hearts that ... ['A Hidden Life'] will still be great, just not what we thought it would be. We thought we knew the ending."
Dretzin told The Inlander that the film's evolution came as a surprise to her as well, and she finds the change the most interesting part.
"When we came to Spokane, we thought we knew what the West story was -- it was a one-liner on Jay Leno," Dretzin says. "The longer we stayed in Spokane, the more questions we had about West."
The West saga indeed opened with the typical broadside about a hypocritical closeted gay man who used political clout -- West was a powerful state senator before becoming Spokane mayor -- to push anti-gay legislation. And, after the story broke there were the predicable jokes and head-shakings from coast to coast.
West's denouement opened with a powerful front-page salvo from the Spokesman-Review that linked West to pedophilia in Spokane 30 years ago. At some point, never remarked upon, the newspaper's "boilerplate graf" that explains an ongoing story changed from having West in a "sex scandal" to an "abuse of office scandal."
Several months after his recall and five months before he died, West was cleared by the FBI of any abuse of office.
These factors, plus the newspaper's decision to hire an undercover operative to pose as an 18-year-old gay male and chat with West online are all explored in "A Hidden Life," Dretzin says.
"In all of these cases, the media plays a very important role," says Dretzin. "As a member of the media, I felt we needed to ask questions." n
"A Hidden Life" airs on Frontline at 9 pm, on Tuesday, Nov. 14, on KSPS-TV, Spokane channel 7.