“Gay Chorus Deep South,” a Tribeca film selection, opened the Indie Street Film Festival in Red Bank at the Two River Theater on the evening of July 24.
Directed by David Charles Rodrigues, the feature length documentary follows the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus when they toured the Deep South in the fall of 2017.
Born in the Boston area, Rodrigues is Greek American Brazilian. His mother was a Greek American, but his father was Brazilian, which is why he lived in Brazil until he was about 24. In the last 15 years, Rodrigues has been living in California where he worked in advertising, eventually switching over to the film industry.
“I worked in advertising for 18 years as a writer and creative director and in the last five years I have been transitioning into full-time filmmaking,” Rodrigues said. “‘Gay Chorus Deep South’ is my feature debut and activism and change have always played a role in my work.”
In 2016, Rodrigues worked on a presidential election campaign, titled “Vote Your Future.” The project brought in over 500 million views and got over 300,000 people registered to vote.
“It was a seminal film that went viral about Robert De Niro saying that he was going to punch Trump in the face,” he said. “That really helped me get to make this film, in the sense where we put all of our efforts into getting people to register to vote and we were really concerned with the outcome of the election. Although the campaign itself could be deemed successful, the results were different than what we had hoped. What really shook me and was a profound learning [experience], was that the results of the election weren’t great, but that wasn’t the real issue to tackle at the moment. The real issue was the divisiveness that the election created. I was really invested in finding a solution in getting us back together, because if the divisiveness continued, we would have this manic state of affairs in our government, on either end of the spectrum.”
On the day after the 2016 presidential election, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus announced its plan to travel throughout the Deep South of the United States and ultimately planned to use the same idea of Don Shirley’s and travel throughout a part of the country where they were not accepted and prove through the power of voice they are equals.
“I was like ‘wow, maybe our music and the power of travel and just being there, and making prejudice personal, would have the power to create some way forward and inspire other people to do the same,’” he said.
Rodrigues had always wanted to be a filmmaker and have a platform where he could instill his thoughts into others throughout his work, since he was a young boy. But, growing up in Brazil had put him at a disadvantage.
“I grew up in a lower middle-class family, so if you don’t have a family that can support your career, you can’t make it. I got into the only thing in Brazil where you could be creative and make a living, which was advertising. In the end, I am very grateful, because advertising became my film school. I worked with all of these incredible directors and being on set with them, I was learning from them,” Rodrigues said. “I was very blessed to have a career in advertising that put me in those situations where I was learning from the best and learning in practical terms, not just in a classroom setting.”
Now, after waiting for his entire life for it to happen, Rodrigues finally put his first feature length film together and earned the prestige of a Tribeca film selection.
But Rodrigues was not just handed the concept for the documentary, he had to pitch to the leaders of the chorus group on why they should let him make the documentary as opposed to the other two directors who were also in the running to tell the chorus’ story.
“Before we met with Tim and Chris, who are the leaders of the chorus, I sat down and wrote 20 dream characters for this film. Stuff like, ‘wouldn’t it be great if there was a chorus member that is from the South whose father rejects him and he wants to get him to watch his performance? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a trans character?’” Rodrigues said. “I literally wrote all of those down and then Tim and Chris were shocked because every single person that I wrote down was a group member of the chorus. It was almost like ESP or something.”
In doing that, Rodrigues was ultimately selected as the director for the project. It was through his hard work that led him to achieving his dream.
“It was a really beautiful process; I have the best team in the world,” he said. “Every single person on the team was instrumental to this process.”
For Rodrigues, the process to make the feature wasn’t one where he was looking for any acclaim or reward, it was to share the story of the men that he met and made such a connection with. He wanted to tell their story – a story of family.
“This has been the most profound experience of my lifetime, so far. I’m not gay or from the South, but my true connection point is that I have always been the other my whole life. In the states, I’m Brazilian; In Brazil, I’m American. I have always been in the underground scene; I have always been the weirdo – the other. But, when I met the chorus and saw their sense of family and how they were these people that were completely different from each other, but loved and accepted each other as a family, it’s almost as if I found my own family in them,” he said. “I really fell in love with the organization and people there. In a sense, it’s beautiful to be able to have a shared experience with everyone there – it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, Latino, Asian, straight trans, queer – everyone in the film was represented. But what’s really represented is this idea that if you’re the other, we can all come together and be ‘the other’ together. That’s a very personal thing to me.”