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Ancient Enemies

Ancient Enemies


A decade after the release of a documentary that profiled Jesse Helms, one of the fiercest enemies of gay rights, Dear Jesse comes to DVD -- including a never-before-seen interview with Matthew Shepard -- and reminds us how far we have come.

Almost a decade has passed since Tim Kirkman filmed his Emmy-nominated documentary Dear Jesse, yet the piece retains its significance as one of the first accounts of the divisive rhetoric that has come to characterize American politics. This short film is a first-person compare-and-contrast between the gay filmmaker and the notoriously conservative Jesse Helms, who served five terms as a Republican senator from North Carolina. Kirkman, who grew up in a similar environment, seeks to understand what motivates decent, "God-fearing" people to practice the politics of hate.

In 1972, Helms became the first Republican to represent North Carolina in the U.S. Senate since the 19th century. His conservative politics quickly earned him the moniker "Senator No" -- that is, no affirmative action, no abortion, no gay rights. Despite his tendency toward intolerance, Helms would become the longest-serving popularly elected U.S. senator in his state's history.

Yet it would be a mistake to characterize North Carolina as a state other than one built on "churches and banks," says local theater director Steve Umberger. His production of Angels in America, a play sympathetic to gays and people with AIDS, met with firm disapproval from conservative Carolinians. And the state was and still is very much composed of middle-class Americans who respect Helms for his consistent -- albeit bigoted -- rhetoric.

Although times have changed -- the 1998 film was produced before same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts -- Kirkman shows us that we are still a nation deeply divided over issues of moral "right" and "wrong." And he points to the toll that this division can take on the American public.

The movie concludes with a short clip of Matthew Shepard, interviewed with his boyfriend at Catawba College in North Carolina two years before his tragic death. Not included in the original documentary, the 1998 tape included the footage as a reminder that a lack of tolerance can breed violence. "This is the only footage I have of Matthew," Kirkman comments on the film. "It's not fair. It isn't enough." And it isn't enough to encompass the vitality of the young man. But it does serve to emphasize the necessity for understanding -- on both sides of the divide.

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Steven Gaughan