Ask someone familiar with modern American slang who a “bear” is and they will probably give you a definition that goes something like this- an anti-Twink, masculine, chubby, hairy gay male. After viewing Malcolm Ingram’s new documentary Bear Nation, one comes out with an entirely different point of view about this outcast subculture of the modern gay life.
Starting in Toronto at Church Wellesley Village, Bear Nation starts with a series of one-on-one interviews about personal experiences with bears. Then it goes onto Las Vegas, to an editorial writer who tries to contribute to the debate of “not so much what a bear is, but what a bear is not.” He argues that the “chub standard” is too limited to fully define the scope of the movement. Then onto Chicago and takes a look at Bear Pride 15, one of the biggest bear events in the nation that brings men together from across the nation, even across the world. The film takes an unexpected turn as it goes to England. Ingram, in the Q&A session after the film, admitted that going to England was not planned. They had met an Englishman at Bear Pride who talked about the scene there and as a true documentarian, Ingram decided to follow him and take a closer look. The story went back to New York and they met up with Kevin Smith (Clerks) who added a different perspective about the bear subculture as a straight, married man.
Ingram picked spectacular people to interview. All were poignant points of view that were incredibly thought provoking. A few particular interviews stand out among the rest, including Kevin Smith who was featured on the cover of “Bear’s Life” magazine. However, the interviews from ordinary people hold their weight too as they offer the most relevant insights to the diversity and the stratification of what is happening to the bears. Their articulation, flow, and frankness are key in making this documentary work.
An interesting topic that came up in the documentary through the interviews is the splintering of this subculture. There is what is called “A-list bears” who, as a general stereotype, are the muscular, toned gays. Then there are the “chub bears” who are represented by the standard definition of a bear. Some find this division normal, a process that has occurred in any group; some find this division ridiculous, an immature, high-schoolish point of view.
Ingram, in the question and answer session that followed the showing, called this documentary his “love letter” to a community that was instrumental in his coming-out. The words used again and again throughout the film to describe the bear culture largely consisted of words like warm, welcoming and accepting. Ingram also said he essentially try to shy away from focusing on the history of the movement and instead try to focus on individual stories.
This documentary is exceptional on so many levels. For one, Ingram again has taken another look into gay culture that is moving and contributes to the on-going social debate. Secondly, its discussion on body image and just being comfortable in one’s own skin is not without implication to the community at large. As one man put in, “Give yourself a break.”
Ingram has the definite makings of a great documentarian. In his Q&A, he revealed that he had to interview Fred Phelps for his other work Small Town Gay Bar. Any gay man willing to do that has the some genuine courage and truth-seeking principles. Ingram could possibly use a tightening up of his visual style. At times in the documentary, it felt like the camera spent too much time jumping around people’s faces and it got distracting. But through his work, he reveals a unique voice that will hopefully pop up again in the near-future. Bear Nation is an entertaining, inquisitive, and sharp piece of documentarian work.
What is a “bear”? Apparently, it’s just a label of very welcoming, diverse group of gay males who have come together in a spirit of camaraderie and desire to be a part of a community. There seems to be a profound sense of identity with this subculture, an identity that is versatile and wide.
Bear Nation is showing again at the Magnolia on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. and is on the ballot for the Audience Award. For more information about Dallas' own Gay and Lesbian film festival, visit Out Takes Dallas' website here.