An Emotional New Doc About Religion and Queer People in America

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For They Know Not What They Do, 2020(Film still)

For They Know Not What They Do, which was due to be screened at the now sadly cancelled BFI Flare, challenges the perceived incompatibility between the teachings of the Bible and queer identity. Here, its director speaks on the project

“I got a number of death threats between 2007 and 2009, maybe 20 to 30 a week,” says Daniel Karslake, director of For The Bible Tells Me So. “People were telling me to watch my back, telling me they were going to come after me, that they were going to find me, that they had a bullet with my name on it. They were really furious at the way I was questioning the Bible.”

Karslake’s debut feature film followed five families, examining the ways in which evangelical and conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible were being used to undermine the rights of queer people. His film was nominated for a Grand Jury prize at Sundance, it secured a GLAAD Award for Best Documentary and went on to be translated into multiple languages. In the intervening years Karslake and his partner left America, moved to Berlin and began building a life for themselves in Germany. Then, in 2015, the hate mail started up again. The same DIY website Karslake had built for the release of For The Bible Tells Me So all those years ago was being used to funnel malicious emails to his personal address. “I said to my husband, ‘What is happening in the US? This is an old movie, something must be going on’ ... I thought if they’re threatening me for this old film,” says the filmmaker, “what on earth must be happening on school playgrounds and on college campuses to LGBTQ people?”

In late 2015, the Republican primary for America’s next presidential candidate was well underway. Curious to find out more about how his country’s attitudes to queer rights were changing, and particularly keen to see how the party of the religious right might be framing these issues, Karslake and his husband tuned in to the candidates’ early debates. “There were still ten or so people running – this is the primary Trump would ultimately go on to win – and as I watched roughly eight of them said something proudly and unabashedly homophobic. That was such a shock,” says the director. “When we’d left the US in 2014 Obama was still president. It was no longer OK to say the things I was hearing. It was anti-gay, anti-lesbian, very anti-trans.” Marriage equality had passed just a few months earlier – in June of 2015 – and the backlash from conservatives across the country was already beginning to gain steam. “Things had gone backwards so quickly, even before this current president had come into office,” says Karslake. “I started reading more and more about bathroom bills, about state legislatures passing laws specifically aimed at taking away rights that had been secured by the LGBTQ community.” Just as he’d done with For The Bible Tells Me So, Karslake decided to make a film that would try to bridge that widening divide, and push back against this new wave of bigotry.

“In the US, whether you’re religious or not, you think you know what the Bible says about homosexuality,” says the director, “because it’s so broadly discussed.” Much as he did with For The Bible Tells Me So, Karslake’s newest doc, For They Know Not What They Do, challenges the perceived incompatibility between the teachings of the Bible and queer identity. “Sodom and Gomorrah isn’t about homosexuality, it’s about hospitality,” he says. It’s a message specifically intended to reach an audience who object to Karslake’s very existence. “I try to be really strategic with how I make my films; this film is about the parents, it starts with them, and it’s the kinds of parents I want to reach,” he says. “There’s an evangelical couple who believed in conversion therapy, I want to reach them. I want them to begin watching this movie, thinking they’d be horrified if their kid came out, and then later as the couples on screen evolve, I want them to evolve along with them.” For Karslake, his films have a very specific purpose: “If they stick with it, it can really alter what they think they know about the Bible, about religion, about faith and what it means to have an LGBTQ child.”

That mission – to speak directly to evangelicals and Christian conservatives, using faces and phrases that they recognise – isn’t the only goal that motivates For They Know Not What They Do. As much as Karslake wants his latest feature to expunge the vitriol he witnessed in the 2015 Republican primary, he also wants to remind the queer community not to be seduced by divisive rhetoric. “It is not my purpose to try to get queer people to become Christian. I completely get why we reject religion! I’m not the Christian I used to be,” says the director. “But I do want to remind people not to let someone else’s closed mind, close your mind. We mustn’t mirror-back the judgement we get from the religious community, because doing that makes us just as bad.”

For They Know Not What They Do was due to screen at the BFI Flare Festival. In light of COVID-19, it’s one of a selection of films now being screened at and is free to watch for Flare ticket holders.