An interview with Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer, directors of Cured
BY NADIA DAVIES
This astonishingly rich documentary explores the campaign by key US activists to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of mental illness.
Describe your film in three words.
Eye-opening, inspiring, emotional.
What inspired you to make the film?
Patrick Sammon: After finishing the distribution process for my previous film — Codebreaker, about the gay British codebreaker Alan Turing — I was looking for another documentary subject. A friend had sent me a film treatment he wrote about Frank Kameny, one of the heroes in Cured. One scene in particular jumped out at me: the moment when Dr. John Fryer appears at the 1972 American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting disguised as “Dr. Anonymous,” wearing a Halloween mask and wig in order to testify safely about what it was like to be a gay psychiatrist. I thought this scene — and the broader fight over the APA’s classification of homosexuality as a mental illness — would make a great documentary. I recruited my friend and fellow filmmaker Bennett Singer to join the effort, and we began what turned out to be a five-year odyssey. Though this moment in history marked a crucial turning point on the path to equality and dignity for LGBTIQ+ folks, no documentary had been created about it before. We wanted to spotlight the heroic efforts of the activists involved in this fight — and we were determined to include as many living participants in the story as possible. Three of the storytellers in Cured have died since we interviewed them, so we are acutely aware of the urgency of capturing their testimony.
What does screening at BFI Flare mean to you?
Bennett Singer: A previous film I co-directed, Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, had its UK premiere at BFI Flare, and I have amazingly vivid memories of traveling to London for that event and of the wonderfully engaged audience that came to our screening. My husband and I also spent about six months in London a couple years ago, and we practically lived at BFI Southbank — there’s nothing like it in New York or Los Angeles, and it was such a fantastic place to be immersed in the world of film in its many forms. So screening Cured at BFI Flare means an enormous amount to me and is such an affirmation of the power of this story to transcend American borders.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this story?
We hope that audiences recognise that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, systemic social change is possible. The persistence and tenacity of the crusaders in Cured proves that we can transform institutions — and ourselves — by remaining dedicated to a cause and holding powerful stakeholders accountable. The victory in Cured was accomplished because of the tandem efforts of the activists who campaigned for justice in the streets and the individuals who worked within the APA to insist that science triumph over prejudice. Both groups were essential in achieving victory — and that’s almost always true with any social-change movement. Anger in the streets is crucial but it’s not enough. Similarly, backroom lobbying and deal-making are rarely sufficient. But when these elements come together, then the groundwork has been laid for genuine transformation.
Why is it important that queer films and documentaries are showcased every year at an event like this?
Through screening these films, we build a community that can work to create a more equitable world for LGBTIQ+ people. Additionally, it’s crucial for young LGBTIQ+ individuals to see themselves represented on screen and to be reminded of the pioneering activists whose courage and fortitude paved the way for all of us. As makers of historical documentaries, we feel that shining a spotlight on little-known stories from the queer past has the ability to create new connections and build new bridges among the many facets of the LGBTIQ+ community. On a related note, we’re thrilled that Cured has been optioned as the basis for a scripted series on FX, to be created by Steven Canals, the co-creator of Pose. A fictional adaptation will enable this story to reach an even wider audience.
BFI Flare is completely online this year, giving everyone across the UK the opportunity to watch the amazing line-up of films available. How important is accessibility with regards to representation on screen?
We wish we could all be together in person for this festival, but there’s a big upside to a virtual presentation. Many more people have access to these films who normally wouldn’t be able to see them. The cost of traveling to London for an in-person event keeps many people away — especially from the far corners of the UK. A virtual festival eliminates these costs and makes the whole event accessible to a much more geographically and economically diverse audience. That sort of access definitely helps create a sense of empowerment and possibility.
What are your words of advice for any aspiring queer filmmakers/actors?
You need to be completely committed to the stories you’re telling. Without passion for a subject, it’ll be easier to get discouraged and give up. From a practical perspective, acquire as many skills as possible — and think about the power of collaborating. The two of us come from different worlds, but working together has been a great experience because despite our differences we both have an unshakable belief in the power of film as a form of activism. We also have complementary skill sets, and that has been incredibly useful when it comes to raising money, doing research, shooting, editing, and distributing our work. As for determining which of us is the more neurotic, the jury’s still out on that!
How has the pandemic impacted you creatively?
The pandemic has created a surprisingly advantageous space for film distribution. Since we are operating virtually, we have been able to connect with a lot more people through virtual channels than we would have if we were scheduling in-person events. In this way, we have been able to maximise the impact of Cured in a variety of communities — and it has been amazing to include many of the storytellers from the film, who are in their 80s and 90s, in virtual Q&As hosted by festivals around the globe. Of course, nothing can replace the feeling of getting together in person with a large group of people to watch and discuss a film (and then deepen the conversation over cocktails). As things become safer, we look forward to returning to in-person events. But in the meantime, we are taking full advantage of the virtual film space.
Who is your LGBTIQ+ screen hero?
Bennett Singer: The first person who comes to mind for me is RuPaul — a screen hero whose Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent have not only elevated the art of drag but whose humanity has reminded LGBTIQ+ people that loving ourselves is an essential first step in living full lives as our authentic selves. That same message is at the heart of Cured.
Other than buying tickets for BFI Flare, how can people best support independent queer media?
It might sound simple, but people can best support queer media by engaging with it in multiple ways. If it’s a magazine, newspaper or website, read it! If it’s a video or film site or festival, watch it. And no matter the form, share queer media stories and films with your friends and families and co-workers. Raising awareness of new projects through social media or talking about them — which may seem old-fashioned — is sure to boost interest. Word-of-mouth is one of the most powerful methods of sustaining and amplifying the reach of queer media. A vibrant queer media landscape requires support from all of us. And don’t be shy about spreading the word to straight allies!
Cured plays as part of the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, 17-28 March.
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