Alumnus’ documentary ‘Sunday Sessions’ brought to Tufts

'The Sunday Sessions' (2019), an observational documentary, is produced and edited by Allen Irwin (LA'10). via IMDb

The Experimental College and the film and media studies department co-hosted a screening of “Sunday Sessions” this past Thursday. The observational documentary — produced, edited and brought to Tufts by alumnus Allen Irwin (LA’10) — puts a spotlight on the modern forms of conversion therapy, focusing on one religious young man’s experience through the controversial process.

ExCollege Director Howard Woolf introduced Irwin to an attentive crowd in the basement of Olin Center for Language and Cultural Studies. The two have known each other since Irwin’s time at Tufts. Woolf has made it a point to keep the door open for filmmaking alumnae to present their projects at their alma mater. In an interview with the Daily about the process of bringing Irwin and his film to campus, Woolf said, “We’ve stayed in touch over the years since he’s graduated and I knew he was working on the film and, when they had it finished, he said, ‘You know, I’d love to bring it up to Tufts,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s see what we can do.’”

The documentary follows Nathan Gniewek, a late-twenties Marylander who is struggling with being both a devout Christian and gay. The three main environments in which the documentary observes Nathan’s experience are the Gniewek family’s house, a Christian conversion therapy weekend retreat and the private home of Nathan’s therapist — licensed clinical professional counselor and conversion therapy-proponent Christopher Doyle — which is where Nathan’s sessions take place. 

The documentary screening was followed by a discussion panel made up of Irwin, LGBT Center Director Hope Freeman and Film and Media Studies Lecturer Natalie Minik. Contextualizing the documentary and its topic within contemporary United States social policy, Freeman highlighted two eye-opening facts: this past April, Massachusetts became the 16th state to ban conversion therapy (since then, two others have as well), and the majority of states do not have legislation that makes it illegal for companies to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Minik asked Irwin if the documentary has yet to be showcased in Christian communities, to which he replied, “There have been some organized screenings at church groups … we’ve gotten feedback from some screenings that people really disliked it and thought it was almost endorsing [conversion therapy] to other people that have polar opposite responses.”

Per its website, the documentary can be watched on iTunes, Amazon and Kanopy. In an interview with the Daily, Irwin discussed his overall goals for the film, saying, “We basically just want as many people to see it, weight in on it and hopefully it can start some discussions and ultimately, maybe, help.” 

On why he believes his documentary’s specific portrayal of conversion therapy is important, Irwin told the Daily that it’s an extremely relevant issue.

“We have a vice president who actively supports this kind of therapy, and I think it’s important for people to see this therapy in a very specific and real format where they can understand how difficult it is for people who are in it to even recognize that its not working or they might be being subtly manipulated in a way,” he explained. “It’s not as simple as another cinematic reference of people doing shock therapy or things that seem more overtly evil or torturous. It’s a lot more complex and subtle than that and I think is probably more prevalent than a lot of people even realize because it’s in these very cloistered communities that … you could know someone who’s doing it and not even know about it.”

The documentary’s screening came on the heels of a homophobic incident on Tufts campus, in which a slur was found written on an undergraduate’s dorm room door. Though the documentary was not screened as a response or in any relationship to the incident, the timing made the documentary all the more pertinent in emphasizing the need to continue protecting vulnerable communities.

During the panel, Freeman expanded on the idea that the documentary’s portrayal of conversion therapy was subtle.

It felt subtle, but there were also certain parts that [Christopher Doyle] didn’t want filmed … so we can’t make assumptions about what was subtle and what wasn’t. And there was a little bit of violence at the beginning where [Doyle] shoved something into [Nathan’s] chest,” she said. 

Freeman went on to lay out in more detail the violent subtexts of conversion therapy, in terms of both Doyle’s tactics toward manipulating Nathan and the practice taken as a whole. “One of the things I noticed was the isolation techniques as well, as [Doyle’s] like, ‘Push these people out of your life,’ so then [Nathan’s] even more in crisis because he’s by himself, he’s having all these thoughts, and then he’s working with a person who, it feels like, wants to keep him in that chaos,” Freeman said.

Freeman also discussed the relevance of performing masculinity, especially while thinking about toxic masculinity and misogyny. “Patriarchy and toxic masculinity [are] rooted in homophobia and transphobia because we have these ideas around what gender is supposed to be doing and if you’re not doing that, and you’re doing the opposite, all of a sudden you’re a ‘sissy’, all of a sudden you’re ‘not strong enough’, all of a sudden you ‘don’t know what you’re doing,'” she said.

Retrospectively discussing the screening and panel event, Woolf pointed out that “It’s very hard to get people to come to things, especially these film screenings … I must have had a dozen emails from people saying, ‘I really want to come, but I’m too busy.’” That being said, Woolf thought that “the screening went well … Everybody was very attentive. They were riveted, really.” 

On his plans for the future, Irwin noted that he will be slowing down on work for now, in order to raise his eight-month-old baby. But, once he does get back to working full throttle, his goal is to “always be trying to squeeze in something that [he finds] meaningful and interesting from a creative perspective, while also keeping the lights on with the commercial work.”