Bear Run (2009)
Directed by Dan Hunt
Run Time: 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
“Woof!” Meet Louie, Mike, and
Mikhael, three typical bears who, Dan Hunt’s documentary
reveals, embody an astonishing diversity within this seemingly
monochromatic subculture within the gay/queer men’s
community. In a brief quarter century, self-identifying bears
have grown from rag-tag assortments of socially and sexually
marginalized men—typically of preponderant beard, belly,
and body hair—to an internationally embraced, gay-mainstream
lifestyle, resplendent with a full-fledged bear circuit and
all which that implies.
The film is set in the Northeast US and Quebec province, where
documentarian Dan Hunt turns a practiced eye and camera on
his three subjects, constructing a carefully observed group
portrait of ethics and manners. Louie, 34 and from New Jersey,
is a stereotype of the circuit and sash queen, aggressively
gregarious, ensconced in a tight circle of gay male friends
who are his family, and the holder of two gay beauty contests.
He repeatedly reminds the audience he is the reigning titleholder
of International Cub.
After many years of being the 800-pound gorilla in the room
that no one in the gay community seemed capable of noticing,
bears have burst forth onto the gay-mainstream scene and into
mainstream media. With gay bears and their sensibilities ever-present
today, it is hard to imagine anyone who has not at least heard
about the bear community. The knee-jerk question remains,
however: What is a bear?
Mike, an African-American gay man, escaped the homophobic
church of his childhood, and became, with his male partner,
the founder of a bear club in the Albany, NY region. The daddy
bear of the film’s triumvirate, Mikhael (also formerly
known as Dancing Bear), hails from rural Vermont and remains
married to his biologically female wife of twenty years, even
as he seeks community among the gay bears of Vermont, New
York State, and Quebec.
As the three personally intimate bear coming-out stories unfold,
Hunt unpacks the rich and dense bear community—a sampler
of the language, the attire, the festivals, and the values
of this gay, bi, transgender, and queer tribe. The paths of
these three cross at Sugar Shack, a winter gathering of bears
in rural Quebec, and all go on to attend the king of all bear
events, the annual International Bear Rendezvous in San Francisco,
AKA Bear Mecca.
Along the way, the audience learns that Louie has come from
very humble roots in a visit to his loving Italian grandmother’s
home, in a trailer park in south New Jersey. Mike, the black
bear, slowly finds his way back to the greater world and his
life-long practice of music, formerly shamed out of him by
his homophobic, fundamentalist congregation and family.
Most moving of all, and the story which takes center stage,
is the complex personal growth of Mikhael, formerly a butch
lesbian, who has found his true self as a gay man among the
bears. He had been sexually abused by his own father, who
was by default the original image of the bearish men Mikhael
most loves and what he has grown into himself. The quest for
deep healing, the spiritual paths that each of these men,
consciously or unconsciously, is on, make this documentary
far more than a mere anthropological expedition. Deeply moving
and deeply humbling, Dan Hunt’s Bear Run is
a beautiful and exemplary piece of documentary filmmaking.
Les K. Wright