My friend, the great actress Karen Black, told me a secret before she died. She said, “If you want to know how it feels to really be alive, to really be present, you'll find that in the unknown ... in not knowing. If you're going down a road you already know ... iou aren't really present. You’re on auto-pilot. But ... if you've never been down that road before, you have to be really alert. Really aware. Really present. And that place of not knowing, it's the most magical place to be.” That advice and the breakup of my personal relationship formed the convergence that inspired my film El Ganzo.
In El Ganzo a black man who identified as gay surprisingly finds love with a white woman. Love is love. It knows no race, gender, age, or any other trappings our world tries to enforce. I have strong beliefs about what it is to have a partner, a lover to share life’s experience with. I wanted to open up the most intimate parts of myself and capture them in these characters, sort of like an autobiography. Looking back, it was as if I knew I needed to make this film so it would begin to unlock the parts in me which were frozen and hidden deep in my being.
Someone asked me if I truly felt that love and sexuality can be as fluid as I express in this movie — my answer is yes. I’ve grown up around it. After my parents divorced, they remained very close, but both took new partners. Now my dad is married to a man. Everyone knows bisexuality is an actual way of being, and most elegantly expressed by Clive Davis in his memoir, The Soundtrack of My Life.
While I prefer to engage sexually and intimately with another male, there were certainly times in my past that I genuinely felt attracted to a female. Being with a woman in a sexual or intimate way isn’t what I’m interested in at this time, but I can’t say that I wouldn’t be interested in that experience later on. I don’t know what I’ll feel and want to explore when I’m 70. I find it incredibly limiting to decide certain things without being open to seeing what something feels like. How can any of us know for sure until we experience it?
Most of the ongoing lovers, boyfriends, or partners I’ve had identified as heterosexuals prior to meeting me. I know it sounds cliché and that there’s an entire demographic obsessed with "turning the straight guy gay," but in reality that isn’t the point. And thinking about it in that way is really shallow.
Once there was a rugby player at a nearby university who asked me to be with him because he wanted to know what having sex with a guy was like. He was sincerely curious. So, out of the generosity of my heart, I was happy to share with him what I could. We got together less than half a dozen times, each episode really exciting and full of passion, curiosity, and wonder. Then he started dating a woman on campus. I never asked him whether, after being with me, he identified as bisexual, heteroflexible, straight, gay, or whatever.
I like to think that my history with attracting this type of curious guy partly has to do with growing up and living for a time in Kansas. Even though there are gay communities in Kansas, they are very sparse, especially in the rural areas. Perhaps in my experience it was more about offering a safe and comfortable environment for guys so they felt open to sharing their feelings. Sometimes it’s in this self-exploration that we discover who we really are.
In El Ganzo I wanted to explore what it means to discover oneself, within the story and for myself, all through that glorious unknown and with total freedom to just be in the moment, be present. Our small cast and stripped-down crew were so game each day as we would go out and just be and find and explore — it was thrilling, relaxing, and a total joy to discover. I like to do guided meditations and very much felt the entire journey of making El Ganzo as a living, breathing experience of being wide awake inside a guided meditation.
It was like therapy, in a way. Maybe I shouldn’t talk about it like that, but then again, what am I so afraid of? Isn’t our art most potent when it reflects that which we know so well? In the film, Guy and Lizzy discover themselves, who they really are at their core. I too found myself during the making of the film. El Ganzo let me flush my old ways of being and embrace new ways, preparing me for the next chapter of my life.
STEVE BALDERSON is a queer filmmaker whose recent productions include El Ganzo, Elvis Lives, Helltown, and Firecracker. El Ganzo screens September 9-15 at Arena Cinema in Los Angeles.