Park View - a Q&A with Film Producer, Tab Ballis
March 2021 | Tab Ballis
Content Warning - this Q&A covers the topic of murder and hate crimes directed towards LGBTQ people.
How did you learn of Talana Kreeger’s death?
Like most of the Southern coastal community of Wilmington, I learned of Talana Kreeger’s death through media coverage that was sensational in its reporting of the horrific details of her murder… yet somehow leaving her identity as a human being unreported.
What is your professional background, and how did it prepare you for producing a documentary film about the hate crime murder of a lesbian?
I received my Masters in Social Work at UNC-Chapel Hill a few months before moving to Wilmington in 1990, where I hoped to work in human service agencies before starting a private practice to serve clients. It was apparent to me upon settling into Southeastern North Carolina that the community was decades behind the relative advancement of Raleigh, though it would be many years before I would learn the true extent.
Social workers are well-trained to witness and interpret the stories of clients in the confidential setting of clinical agencies, but I sensed that the life of Talana Kreeger was at risk of being obscured by the horror of her death and its sensationalized reporting. I felt compelled to make sure that her story was told.
Where does the title “Park View” come from?
In 1990, Wilmington, NC had a couple of gay bars that mainly served a male clientele, and these establishments… David’s Lounge, Mickey Rats… survived behind a shroud of secrecy as thick as the Spanish moss hanging from the ancient live oak trees on Market Street. Their entrances discretely ensconced down dark alleys, the traditional gay bars of Wilmington assured the privacy of the men looking for social connections… unlike the Park View Grill, a lesbian bar that opened the same year, at a very visible location where Front Street and 3rd Street merged to form a major thoroughfare, Carolina Beach Road.
Among all the tragic hate crimes suffered by LGBTQ people, why is this one deserving of a documentary film?
Tragically, LGBTQ people have been targeted by violence at a rate that can only be called an epidemic, as hate crimes have actually increased since the historic Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, often targeting the most vulnerable populations. While violence aimed at gay men and trans people of color has become all too common in recent years, hate crimes against lesbians are actually not well-documented… not because they are rare, but due to the fact that law enforcement agencies have historically failed to inquire about the sexual orientation of female victims.
Renee Grozelle, a graduate student from the University of Ontario requested information from this production as part of her masters thesis on media coverage of hate crime murders of lesbians in the US… telling us that the Kreeger case was one of only two well-documented cases that she was able to identify in her research.
Personally, I felt that Talana’s story must be told, so that the agony she suffered would not be in vain.
As a straight ally, why do you think that your perspective is adequate to tell this story?
The simple answer is that social workers hear a lot of stories that they can’t tell, because of client confidentiality; this was a story that needed to be told, by a community that was too traumatized to tell it. My background as a social worker equipped me to respectfully research Talana’s story, and I was able to begin telling it.
On a deeper level, I understand that the civil rights movement of the 1960s needed the participation of young white Americans to join the marches and bus rides into the segregated South, in order to gain the moral investment that would move a nation. I believe that LGBTQ human rights are at a similar point of inflection, where the visible support of family, friends and community allies is essential to solidify the gains and overcome the obstacles in heterosexist institutions.
You have said, “I’m not a filmmaker, I am a social worker.” How have you approached the learning curve of media production?
My effort to produce Park View has benefitted from proximity to a thriving community of creative professionals in Wilmington, North Carolina… sometimes referred-to as “Hollywood East,” where a steady stream of young filmmakers have leant their talent to this evolving project. With their assistance, and some hard-learned lessons, I have gradually acquired the technical knowledge to produce and direct this film.
Over the past fifteen years, digital technology has also evolved to make filmmaking accessible to most people… even an older guy like me!
What were the most challenging logistical problems in making this film?
Other than that steep learning curve of filmmaking, the biggest challenge was the length of time… thirty years from Talana’s murder to the completion of Park View in 2020… a duration in which many subjects who lived the story moved away, died, or buried their memories so deeply that they were not willing or able to be interviewed.
Obviously, gaining the trust of a traumatized community, as a white, straight, cisgender male, was the single greatest hurdle to cross… along with overcoming my own ignorance of Southern queer culture.
What was the response of gay and lesbian older adults in the Southern coastal community of Wilmington, NC to your efforts to tell their story?
Doubt, anger, dismissal… not surprisingly, the LGBTQ older adults who survived the trauma of this horrific hate crime were not keen on reliving the event that singularly eclipsed a time of cultural freedom in post-Stonewall America… alienating a vulnerable community, as hate crimes are intended to do.
As a social worker, I took seriously the responsibility of researching the life and death of Talana Kreeger, and her impact on this community, without causing unnecessary harm to the people who lived the story. A major reason that it took fifteen years to produce Park View was the care we have taken to allow the community to take its own time to process events that were buried for decades.
What are the long-term impacts of shared trauma on LGBTQ communities?
Isolation and disenfranchisement are the intended outcomes of any hate crime, and the fragmenting of the LGBTQ communities of Wilmington are evident, to this day.
Did you consider the risk of retraumatizing the community by asking them to participate in the making of Park View?
I know that the only reason that any of us ever learned of Matthew Shepard’s murder was because his parents, Judy and Dennis, were determined that their son’s death would not be in vain. Sadly, most LGBTQ hate crime victims have been long-discarded by their families, and it was evident that Talana Kreeger had nobody that was willing or able to revive her humanity, after the news coverage had rendered her a “body found in the woods.”
As a mental health professional working in Wilmington, I had observed the isolation of queer people here and the absence of reliable resources for LGBTQ older adults before I helped establish a SAGE chapter here in 2013. It was evident that the only way past the trauma of Talana’s death was to move through it.
The details of Talana’s murder are horrific. How has the Park View Project helped viewers prepare for learning that information?
At the Wilmington community screening of Park View, on the 30th anniversary of Talana’s death, February 22, 2020, we informed the approximately 250 people attending the event of the graphic details presented in the film, with written and verbal trigger warnings. We also had a group of mental health professionals stationed around the room, prepared to respond in support of anyone experiencing distress during the screening. Though documentary films are not typically focused on ethical treatment of subjects, Park View endeavored from the beginning to tell this difficult story in the best interest of the community that lived it.
There have been landmark advances in recent times for LGBTQ human rights, including marriage equality, military service and employment nondiscrimination. Why is it necessary to remind the public of a thirty-year-old murder?
The fact that seventeen US states… including North Carolina… currently have no hate crime protections for their LGBTQ citizens is more than reason enough to tell these stories, particularly because the most vulnerable queer people… the old, the young, the poor, the uneducated… may not have benefitted from recent legislative advances.
How has the production of Park View informed other creative and academic projects focusing on Talana’s murder?
As the Park View Project has raised awareness of the life and death of Talana Kreeger, other academic and creative endeavors have joined our efforts to revive the humanity of LGBTQ hate crime victims.
Stephen Sprinkle, author of the groundbreaking book “Unfinished Lives,” learned of Talana’s death from the Park View Project, and he included her story among the fourteen LGBTQ hate crime murder victims in his volume.
Renee Grozelle, a graduate student from the University of Quebec, sought information from the production in support of her masters thesis on lesbian hate crime murders in the US.
Mouths of Babes Theatre produced a documentary theater piece based on Park View, holding a staged reading in 2019 at a Wilmington venue.
Have you collaborated with national organizations in the development of Park View?
The production has been fortunate to receive the generous support of the National Association of Social Workers, an organization that recognizes the significance of accurate and compelling portrayal of vulnerable communities in public discourse. Along with Andy Myers of Working Films, I was honored to receive the 2013 NASW Media Award for the short documentary film, “My Marriage is Not Threatened by Gay Marriage in North Carolina.”
Cathy Renna, Communications Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force and former National News Media Director for GLAAD, leant her extraordinary knowledge and experience to Park View, as she provided crucial analysis of the deficiencies in news coverage of Talana’s murder in 1990.
SAGE USA has advanced the recounting of many LGBTQ elders’ lives across the country, and in 2013 and 2014, their funding of SAGE Story grants facilitated our preserving the incredible insights of many older adults in Wilmington, including the late Bob Jenkins, a Southern gay gentleman who delighted generations of visitors to the Cape Fear Coast with his walking tours… and contributed to Park View.
The mourners of Talana Kreeger had been denied a location for her funeral by many local churches in 1990, and subsequently, they were among a small group of queer folk in Southeastern North Carolina who established a congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church, so that “we would have a place to marry you and bury you." Park View was honored to gain an interview with Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the MCC, about the legacy of loss and resilience in their denomination.
Why is Park View structured into six chapters: Talana, The Crime, The Trial, The News, The Church, The Community?
The Park View Project embraced the daunting task of researching a thirty-year-old murder to reveal the layers of trauma and transformation that pervaded the life and death of a lesbian woman and her impact on the community. Woven into this complex story were the destructive and redemptive aspects of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, print and televised journalism, and religious institutions of that era. Though hate crimes are conceptualized as specific acts of violence targeting particular vulnerable communities, their impact is anything but finite, reverberating through generations of people and their institutions.
As a social worker, I regularly encounter individuals and families who have lost the ability to distinguish their personal pain and isolation from the collective trauma they have survived. Park View endeavors to identify and deconstruct these layers of shared experience among the older gay men and lesbians of Wilmington, North Carolina.
How have you ensured that a diversity of voices are reflected in Park View?
My visible identity as an older white, straight, cisgender male carries privilege and peril in the role of storyteller for a lesbian murder victim and the queer community who loved and lost her. As a mental health professional and steering committee member for SAGE Wilmington, I believe that the LGBTQ people whom I am privileged to work with do not expect me to have unlimited understanding of their lived experience, which may be different from mine. They do expect, however, that I have a healthy interest in their journey, tempered by respectful inquiry and a lack of presumption.
My initial collaboration with gifted lesbian filmmaker Ingrid Jungermann (whose dark comedy “Women Who Kill” won the 2016 Jury Prize at Tribeca) set the tone for inclusion of queer voices in the production of Park View. Complementing the diverse group of older LGBTQ subjects whose recollections bring Talana Kreeger’s story to life, Ingrid’s masterful direction of a focus group of lesbians in their early thirties… the age when she lost her life… offers a poignant perspective on generational differences in the perspectives of queer folk.
Have you been in contact with Talana’s biological family?
Like many LGBTQ people of her time, Talana was rejected by her family because of her sexuality. Indeed, the only “family” who attended her impromptu funeral service were the friends who knew her kindness and loyalty personally, and drank the occasional beer with her over a game of pool at the Park View Grill.
Over fifteen years of production, I was asked repeatedly, “What is taking you so long to make this film?” Among the more palatable responses to this question was the overarching truth that the pain of her death had buried the memory of her, and the process of uncovering her humanity took time.
Our patience was rewarded in 2019, our fourteenth year of production, when a cousin emailed me that she learned the terrible facts of Talana’s death on an internet search, and she wanted to let us know who she was in her early years. The precious childhood photos provided by this loving family member were invaluable in restoring our comprehension of Talana, from a “body found in the woods” to a real person.
What organizations have contributed to the community engagement objectives for Park View?
Working Films, an international NGO committed to extending the public impact of socially-important films, has provided meaningful audience outreach consultations for Park View.
Equality NC, the lead LGBTQ advocacy organization in North Carolina, has supported Park View’s community engagement efforts locally and statewide, with their Director of Civic Engagement and Politics, Jessica Hulick, participating in the focus group for the project.
Cucalorus Film Foundation provided technical assistance that made the local Wilmington Preview of Park View a success on the 30th anniversary of Talana’s murder, February 22, 2020… just days before the COVID pandemic shut down performance venues nationwide.
The Frank Harr Foundation, a Wilmington, NC nonprofit named for the revered, late champion of LGBTQ human rights in this community, provided initial fiscal sponsorship for Park View, which has recently been taken on by the St. Jude’s MCC Foundation.
How do films like Park View help to educate Social Workers on the needs for trauma informed practices when supporting older LGBT people?
As a private practice clinician and part-time faculty member with the University of North Carolina Wilmington School of Social Work, I continue to be inspired by my clients and students to evidence the social work value of advocacy in effective, visible ways... a goal that seems ever more challenging in a high-tech world that sometimes inundates us with information. Ultimately, I have found that media production is the most accessible vehicle for extending my role as an agent of change, as Park View endeavors to make the enduring trauma of hate crimes more visible and actionable to helping professionals who serve LGBTQ elders.
What are the distribution plans for Park View, and when will we be able to see it?
Park View is currently submitting to film festivals, which have mostly adopted virtual formats during COVID precautions, so if you have a favorite festival in your area, ask them to invite us to submit through Film Freeway so that you can enjoy a screening when social distancing is eased!
Our long-range distribution plan is modeled after the successful strategy of Gen Silent, the groundbreaking documentary that illuminates the challenges of LGBTQ elders in healthcare systems, movingly produced and directed by Stu Maddux, whose guidance has informed the production of Park View. In 2011, Stu came to Wilmington to support a community screening of Gen Silent that inspired the formation of SAGE Wilmington of the Cape Fear Coast two years later. Similarly, we would like to bring Park View to universities, faith communities, nonprofits and, yes… SAGE chapters across the US, in order to highlight the ongoing risk of hate crimes to LGBTQ citizens and the need for political action, as well as the urgency of federal, state and local governments to achieve cultural competence in law enforcement and other institutions.
Where can we keep up with new information about Park View?