Launching on Netflix today is the documentary Hating Peter Tatchell, a look at the life of one of the most high-profile LGBTQ+ rights activists in the world. For most of his life, Tatchell has been on the front line of the fight for LGBTQ+ liberation, often using extreme means to get a media spotlight on the issues he campaigns for. His outspoken views and methods have seen him named “The Most Hated Man In Britain” by his critics, and even some of those in the Queer community. However, as the star-studded documentary shows, while some actions may have lost him allies, he has always been on the right side of history.
In his first interview since the film’s release, we talked to director Christopher Amos about how he approached telling such a sprawling story, and the tension of following Tatchell during a headline-grabbing trip to the 2018 World Cup…
What inspired you to tell Peter Tatchell’s story?
I was always really intrigued by his activism. I knew his story was something that a lot of people didn’t understand. A lot of the gay community were not really giving him the respect I thought he deserved considering what he was doing and championing. It was always ‘he’s too radical’ or ‘he’s too noisy’ or ‘he’s not being polite’. I just always thought that made for a really good character, and I’d just really like to get to know who he is and let other people see that for themselves.
Tatchell’s life has decades worth of stories. How did you decide what to focus on?
He’s been active for six decades. The structure I had always formed a timeline starting from when he was born, through to today. What are the moments? What are the key points? There’s so much good stuff that didn’t make it into the film. The Anti-Apartheid movement was a really big thing. As South Africa re-wrote its constitution, Peter campaigned heavily there to make sure Anti-LGBT discrimination laws were included, which led to a lot of protection for the gay community. That’s not in the film, and it’s a shame because it’s critical to Peter’s story and to the progression of LGBT liberation, but I always had to keep going back and saying ‘what’s the key story here?’
I’d mapped out the turning points, and followed the trajectory of what you get when you watch a superhero movie. You’ve got the origin story at the beginning, then something that’s a catalyst, where they have to fight for good, and then there’s setbacks along the way. So, I followed those story arcs and overlaid the history of his activism – where does that land on those turning points? Which stories are going to make it, and which babies do I have to kill, so to speak?
British society is a big presence in the film, with members of the public expressing opinions that are shocking to hear. How hard was it to delve through that footage?
I didn’t have to search hard! In terms of finding the hatred… it was the times we were living in. It was reminiscent of today in some ways, that cohesion of media messaging and public mindset has existed for decades. But it wasn’t hard to watch, it was almost… not funny, but a sense of ‘thank god we’ve changed since then!’ It was great to watch it in hindsight. Scary, to think that that’s how things were, but also hopeful that things can change. I think that’s the message I wanted to show in the film, that activists can look at it and think about the change that’s possible despite all the great obstacles.
Tatchell and the activism group OutRage! publicly ‘outed’ senior bishops in the Church of England, a move that was condemned by many. How did you maintain balance when covering issues like this?
My loyalty was always there with the subject, Peter, but I was also very aware that I had to not make it propaganda. So, I had to make sure that we had both sides of the opinion on him, and it needed that for the narrative to be strong anyway. There are some editorial choices where Peter loses his voice a little bit, because of an onslaught of people that are coming at him. It’s edited that way so as to let their voice overpower his voice for a little period in the film.
It’s a tricky line, that one. I wanted people to not feel like they were being coerced into loving Peter, but to gravitate towards having respect for him regardless of what they felt about his actions.
You join Peter in the film’s final act as he demonstrates against Russian authorities at the 2018 World Cup…
Russia was high pressure. It’s an interesting documentary in the sense that Peter’s still active today – a lot of these biography films are about people who have retired. That trip was really intense for me, because it was just Peter and I. We were covert and undercover, we needed to look like tourists. I was really panicky, because I had Peter mic’d up with a wireless microphone. I was more scared about my footage being nicked! Also, we’d been watched for a couple of days. We’d do pieces to camera and then suddenly from nowhere you’d hear something in Russian coming from a speaker saying ‘please move on’. Where’s the camera watching us? The surveillance in Downtown Moscow was insane.
Peter was prepared, like a soldier at war. Every single day that we’d leave the hotel, Peter would literally have everything on him just in case something happened. He had his passport, he had everything he’d brought into the country with him in a backpack in case anything was to go wrong at any given moment. That elevated my anxiety about the whole thing a little bit! But he’s a pro at activism, that’s just what he does.
The film is being released on Netflix. How much have streaming platforms changed the landscape for documentaries and independent film?
It’s definitely getting more eyeballs on documentary, I think there’s a renaissance of that in terms of storytelling. Having a distribution platform like streaming is helping docs become more popular. I think people like true stories, the world is so crazy and when you can watch a true story there’s some sort of emotional heartbeat to that that people respond to.
Hating Peter Tatchell is available on Netflix now.