There are times when a documentary film opens the door to an important conversation and leaves you breathless with the weight of what it depicts. And there are times when a documentary pushes the filmmaking form in new directions, leaving a lasting impression of innovation. With Pray Away, a thorough examination of the Christian-led conversion therapy and “ex-gay” movement, director Kristine Stolakis does both, presenting a film that will long be remembered for both form and content.
Pray Away was slated to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2020 before opting for the 2021 festival. Speaking to Stolakis over a year after I first saw the film, I thought of what hadn’t changed since the spring of 2020. The organization profiled in the film, Exodus, had already officially shut down, but the past year saw the introduction of more bills discriminating against trans people than ever before. Pray Away has partnered with the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Born Perfect campaign; the Trevor Project;GLAAD; and PFLAG, who are all leading campaigns to help ban conversion therapy at the state level and lobby against trans discrimination bills.
I was struck by Stolakis’s comments on how children hear the changing terminology of conversion therapy in church settings and can then find conversion services when they reach out for help. Stolakis is right: It took me less than five minutes to find a therapy-oriented group whose site disguises itself as a support group for LGBTQ+ Christians, emphasizing “safe places,” “self-discovery,” and “God’s love for LGBTQ+ people.” You can ban conversion therapy in the legislature, but rooting out rhetoric in homes, churches or synagogues, community centers—that’s a task that can feel all but impossible.
I spoke to Stolakis about how we can help combat the sanitized narrative of conversion therapy today, her filmmaking influences, and more.
Amelia Merrill: Pray Away was supposed to premiere at Tribeca in 2020, and while you made it available to press, it didn’t have an official premiere until this year. In all that time, have you kept in touch with some of the people involved in the film?
Kristine Stolakis: I guess I can start by saying that this was a really personal project to me. My uncle went through conversion therapy when he was a kid and he came out as trans, and I had started doing research to try to understand all the mental health issues that he went through. All of our core creative team has some connection to the conversion therapy or “ex-LGBTQ” movement, be them survivor themselves, be them queer people who grew up in evangelical or conservative religious communities. So it was very natural during this past year, when we were dealt a really complex hand with COVID in terms of trying to release the film, that we would stay in touch very intensely. That’s also true with the subjects in the film, the people who were so generous and courageous to share their complex stories with me—I don’t take that for granted. So we all got to celebrate together when we partnered with Ryan Murphy and he helped bring the film to Netflix alongside another really special partner of ours, Blumhouse.
AM: I was thinking about way this film portrays “ex-trans” activist Jeffrey McCall. In the past year, we’ve had so much legislation targeting trans people—children, specifically—and I’m wondering if you think the conversion therapy movement is targeting trans people in a way that’s different from before, or different from targeting someone’s sexual orientation?
KS: A very defining part of the ex-LGBT movement has been using stories of change—people changing from gay to straight, from trans to cis, as proof that change is possible.Those stories have, problematically, also been used to support legislation to take away the rights of all LGBTQ people, whether or not they’re within religious communities. These stories are being used in various halls of congress, both locally and federally, to support anti-trans legislation. And we know that this past year has been horrible in terms of the amount of legislation passed that keeps youth, in particular, from gender-affirming care. That’s something that my team has talked about being almost a form of conversion therapy, because if you’re not able to seek affirming care, what kind of care are you going to get? A psychologist, a spiritual leader who will tell you that you are sick and that they have the answer, and that is conversion therapy. That’s part of the reason that we wanted to feature someone who considers themselves ex-trans. Something that did not make it in the film is that we found Jeffrey [McCall] as he walked around the halls of Congress passing out his book, saying, ‘I am someone who once considered myself trans.’ He connects his trans experience to [his] experience of addiction and because he is no longer trans, that is why he no longer has addiction issues. I am so happy for Jeffrey that he no longer suffers from addiction issues, I respect that—and of course I think it’s very problematic that he’s using his stories to fight something like what he was fighting that day, which was the Equality Act.
AM: I thought I would be really angry with someone like Jeffrey, but I wasn’t angry, I just sort of wanted to reach my hand out. This film doesn’t judge people for how they identify or what their journey is with their religion or sexuality, it’s not black and white. How did you cultivate an environment where people felt comfortable enough to get into the nitty gritty of all that?
KS: I can say that your experience watching the film, where you acknowledge that you started from a place of anger or an expectation to be angry but that you ended up feeling sad, mirrors my own experience as well. I entered making a film about this movement because I watched tremendous suffering from someone that I love extremely dearly. So I was prepared to feel furious. But what I learned is that leaders in this movement are overwhelmingly LGBTQ people themselves, and often they are survivors of conversion therapy as well. That doesn’t mean they also didn’t cause extreme harm, and that’s something each individual former leader is facing in their own way in my film, and working to be accountable in their own communities. It’s extremely complex. And because I could see people for what I think this movement is, which internalized homophobia and transphobia wielded outwards, I think myself and my team were able to create an environment where people were able to be their complex selves.
That also includes the current leader, Jeffrey, in our film. He and I really disagree about the ramifications of his work, but I was very clear and upfront that we wanted someone in the film who is currently in the movement to share their point of view. A lot of this movement is practiced in secret. A lot of people will not call what they do conversion therapy because they view what they’re doing as religious in nature, but they’re still practicing pseudo-psychology and acting as pseudo-therapists. A lot of this movement practices in the dark, and I’m very grateful that Jeffrey was willing to step into the light, so to speak, and share what he is doing with the general public. And we worked really hard in the film to let him speak for himself while also letting a critique manifest through other leaders’ experiences.
AM: Something that I hadn’t thought about before I watched this film was how states can ban conversion therapy on its face, but it’s happening in ways that we don’t know about. Maybe we don’t have Exodus or JONAH, but what we have is harder to locate or name. So how can someone work to combat that?
KS: Exodus was always an umbrella ministry, meaning that they referred people to local ministries that practice some form of conversion therapy. Exodus was like the very problematic phonebook that you would go and search for your local person to “help” you “change.” Sometimes people mistake the closing of a really notable organization like Exodus or like JONAH as the movement having stopped and that’s not the case. We all just have to know that this continues, we have to know that in the U.S. alone, nearly 700,000 people have gone through this. I think if we can share in that knowledge, that’s step one in terms of making this better. I can’t tell you number of people, from all sides politically, that would say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t happen anymore, why waste your resources on this film?’ And here I was doing a quick Google search and able to find a program in the state [where] I live, five towns away. We all just have to open our eyes a little bit.
The majority of conversion therapy happens within religious organizations with people who are not licensed counselors. So we hope people share the film, because we need people to have a perspective shift, that what they’re doing is conversion therapy, that what their church is doing is conversion therapy—so that locally, people can make an impact by saying, ‘Hey, pastor, you say you’re not a therapist, but what were you telling that trans kid that came out who came to your office yesterday?’ I also really encourage people who belong to religious communities, whatever group they’re a part of, to ask that group to become completely affirming and supporting of LGBTQ people. It might surprise you how many places say they don’t do conversion therapy but refuse to be affirming. Because what happens if that kid is in that congregation and knows that they’re gay, what message are they getting? It will take them one internet search to find something like the Freedom March [McCall’s ministry. Do not assume it is not happening where you live, do not assume it is not happening within communities that you and your family are connected to.
AM: With the intimacy of the film and the cinema verité style of many scenes, I’m wondering which filmmakers inspired you when you were working on this documentary?
KS: I love that question. I am so enamored with some of the original cinema verité directors and shooters. D.A. Pennebaker is a huge influencer for me, [his] film Primary is a huge influence. These early moments in the history of film where the camera became light enough that people could handhold it and really capture things as they were unfolding in real time—I’m thinking about Don’t Look Back, [Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s] Lonely Boy, one of my very favorite cinema verité films. There was a delight in just letting peoples’ emotions be the thing your camera captured. And it wasn’t about looking exactly like fiction cinema, it was about being patient and letting real emotions happen in real time because you could leave a light footprint in someone’s home. And that was something we really tried to do in the film. A moment that we captured with Julie Rodgers, who is the voice of a survivor in our film, we had a clip of her as she was listening to a friend who was helping her plan her wedding. [The friend] asked, ‘Do you have any family heirlooms that will be a part of your wedding?’ And you just see her face shift and go to a dark place in real time because she’s processing the fact that she has an extremely complex relationship to her family who, at that moment, weren’t planning to attend her wedding. And that, to me, is the best part of film, is when you can witness something happening in real time.
AM: Can you tell me anything about what you’re working on for the future?
KS: I realized in the making of Pray Away two tenants of my filmmaking that I learned by doing: I’m really interested in seriously thinking about mental health. I think it has a relationship to the way that prejudice and power manifests in our world. And I believe that it’s really important, especially as documentary filmmakers, to make films that originate in your personal experience, it’s important to make sure we have a stake in the communities that we’re covering in our films. I’m working on a documentary project about the inner lives of middle school girls that’s rooted in one girl’s journey of eating disorder recovery. And we’ll have other coming-of-age stories woven in in, and I arrived at that project because I had an eating disorder myself in middle school, and working on the film has really helped me process that experience. The film will actually be animated to preserve the anonymity of the girls, and all the audio will be of the real girls themselves. I’m working with the same team that I made Pray Away with.
Pray Away is available on Netflix now.