The new Hulu documentary We Live Here: The Midwest highlights the challenges faced in recent times by LGBTQ+ residents of the Midwest, giving voice to a wide representation of people struggling to simply live their lives in the places they call home.
Out and proud lesbian director and producer Melinda Maerker had collaborated with openly gay photographer David Clayton Miller a few years previously on a different LGBTQ+ project. The genesis for the new documentary came about when the duo checked in on past subjects to see how their lives had fared since 2016, when the U.S. political landscape had drastically shifted.
But Miller, who served as executive producer on We Live Here, recalled that, "Some people couldn't join us because of blowback from their jobs. It was a tough process. Two days before we were supposed to film in Wisconsin a cast member backed out because of the fear of losing his job."
The team scrambled to find more subjects to tell their stories on camera. The creative team discovered a lesbian couple from Kansas, Denise and Courtney Skeeba, along with their bisexual son Marek, who were all contacted by telephone to ask about participating in the documentary. Miller, who worked on two other independent films, Defying Gravity and Em & Me, described finding the family as "a happy accident and an amazing addition to the film."
Ohio residents Russell and Mark Exlos-Raber initially came to public attention by being the first gay couple to be married in the county they live in. They were recruited by an email from Maerker.
Russell said, "We have enjoyed every minute of being part of this documentary. Living in Ohio has made us feel like we are going backward with our rights at times. Although we are proud of the county we live in, there is still a lot more work to do."
Maerker noted, "Russ is part of a program creating a safe space in schools for LGBTQ students, and that brought him to our attention."
Cast and crew from We Live Here: The Midwest visited the Gene Siskel Film Center on Dec. 1 for a Chicago premiere screening that coincided with World AIDS Day.
At the screening, Maeker reflected on the contributions of the late activist/writer Larry Kramer, whose work energized the LGBTQ+ community and its allies during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the '80s and '90s. Miller is married to Ryan Murphy, who directed HBO's adaptation of Kramer's The Normal Heart.
"We need a modern day Larry Kramer right now,"said Maeker. …"Here we are, two years later after shooting this film, and we are in a worse situation than we were in before we started. The number three most powerful person in the government right now holds antagonistic and chilling points of view about the people in our documentary. One of the non-binary subjects in the film felt bullying has increased recently, and that is scary."
Miller described We Live Here as a 'family documentary' that happens to have queer characters as part of the storyline. "It was important to Melinda and I to [present] the families as being courageous more than being LGBTQ, because they are so brave."
Maerker asked, "Hulu was right onboard, with the marketing in the key art describing the documentary as a portrayal of courageous families in the Midwest."
When asked what the creators would like for audiences to take away after viewing We Live Here: The Midwest, Maerker replied, "These are people not just issues, like Nia Chiaramonte talks about in the film. Voters don't think about the community as people sometimes. My partner received a text from her Trump-loving cousin last night, saying that the film is entertaining and well-done. She said she is going to think more about the LGBTQ+ community after watching it. That was moving to me. I want people to enjoy the film full of good stories. It is not preachy in any way."
Miller continued, "Viewers will see there is nothing to be scared of with these families, and they are just like everyone else. This documentary is very important and we are proud of it."
We Live Here: The Midwest streams on Hulu beginning Dec. 6.