One of the delights of A Secret Love — the new Netflix documentary about the decades-long closeted relationship between Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel — is the vintage footage of the couple's early years in the mid-20th century.
While photographs paint a portrait of being closeted and queer during this time period, the video was "the treasure of the Sierra Madre," as producer Brendan Mason classified it in a recent interview with The Advocate.
After all, these moving images provide a portal for 21st-century viewers to another time. Donahue was one of the players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which inspired A League of Their Own. And her story, including the reasons she hid her relationship from her family for almost seven decades, offers a fascinating perspective on history and society's evolving mores in the couple's native Canada and the U.S. city they adopted, Chicago.
This treasure was almost never discovered, however. "Initially, Terry kind of gave us a rusty film can and 14 photos," recounted Mason, after the filmmakers asked the subjects what media was available for inclusion in the documentary.
It would take over four years to create A Secret Love — in part, due to financing. More time can be a danger when dealing with older subjects, for obvious reasons, but it can also engender better storytelling. Over this period, the documentary is able to chronicle events happening to the couple near the present day: Donahue's health declines and the women consider relocating to an assisted living facility as well as marriage. Love letters and audiotapes were uncovered during this time.
But it was Chris Bolan, a grand-nephew of the couple and the film's director, who struck gold two years after production began when he intensified his search of the couple's home as a move seemed imminent.
"I was looking in a basement and I was just going through things and I found this old suitcase from the 1950s. And I opened it up, and reels and reels and reels of eight-millimeter fell out," Bolan recounted."I was like, 'Oh, my God.' I couldn't believe it. I found an old projector in the corner, and I put the film in, and I started to see images of them together. And then it started to burn."
Panicked, Bolan stopped the projector, packaged up the reels, and shipped them to New York City to be restored. What they found was a series of home movies the couple had recorded from the 1940s to '60s — all of it usable for their documentary.
"It had been sitting in a dry, dark cool place for three decades," marveled fellow producer Alexa L. Fogel. Mason added, "It was almost in perfect condition. It took our breath away."
The discovery of the footage was so game-changing that it upped the pressure on Bolan. "If I screw up this movie now, I am the worst director that ever lived," he would tell his producing partners after the find.
The footage was not only exciting for the producers. For Bolan, it was "important" to screen the film for his aunts before it was released. Thankfully, he was able to show a rough cut to the couple in their apartment a few months before Donahue died in 2019.
Donahue "loved it, and they just were giddy," Bolan recounted. The vintage film he had uncovered in the suitcase was a highlight. "They just couldn't believe it. ... All that old footage of eight-millimeter, they would just start giggling and start talking about it and it would just rekindle their whole life. It was beautiful. I'm so glad she got to see it."
"That's powerful to think about because not only were they seeing how we did their lives in the present, but they hadn't seen all that footage in 40 years," Mason added. "So they were then reliving their history together watching this movie."
The true treasure, of course, is Donahue and Henschel themselves. The story of their relationship would never have been told in the first place had they not decided to come out to their grand-nephew during a 2009 visit — after spending the majority of their lives in the closet.
When Bolan responded positively at the time, the couple "started to open the floodgates and tell these wonderful stories of their life together, dating back to the 1940s," he recalled. "They literally got up in the middle of delivery and started dancing, arm-in-arm together. I knew at that point I needed to make a movie about this."
Fogel, a prominent casting director (FX's Pose, Atlanta) who first knew Bolan as a New York University graduate student and from the entertainment industry, called the decision to produce the film "a no-brainer" after he approached her with the idea; she and Mason helm the Beech Hill Films production company. "It's such a remarkable story that begs to be told."
"Why bother coming out in your 80s? To answer that question was a very powerful thing," Mason affirmed. "Because usually, you go through those growing pains ... in your 20s, or now in your teens. To think about doing it in the context of already having lived the whole life was kind of like a real deep one that we wanted to find out."
"Terry's particular story may be [previously] untold. But this hiding in plain sight, I think is not something that's new," he added. "A lot of us looked in our family trees at our grandparents or great-grandparents. ... 'Oh, you had a great-uncle Ray and he was a lifelong bachelor and he never got married.' ... We've all been here. Gays and lesbians, going back forever, have been here. But there's just always been that secret."
"People are still hiding in plain sight," said Bolan, who has received an outpouring of love and thanks from queer women, some of them still closeted, since the trailer was released. "So having Terry giving these women a voice, it just moves me tremendously. It makes me so happy that we're telling the story."
Just as the footage in A Secret Love moved the couple at its center, the filmmakers also hope that their story moves the hearts and minds of viewers today toward acceptance of LGBTQ people.
"I want this to have an emotional impact on people watching this film. And I've said this before, but I don't want people to necessarily understand it with their head. I want them to listen and understand it with their hearts because I really believe that we learn our greatest lessons and have the greatest capacity for change when we listen with our hearts," Bolan said. "I think this film enabled us to do that."
"I would just steal a quote of Terry's from the film," Mason said. "She says at one point, very simply, 'Love is love.' And if people could take that away, I'd be the happiest guy in the world."
A Secret Love is now available to stream on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.