Seth Randal has a wicked sense of humor. Beneath his comedic antics, however, there is a serious dig-for-the-truth documentary filmmaker just beginning to get out. Randal, who has a background in print and broadcast journalism, is also a born reporter. A self-proclaimed history nut, Randal loves researching a good story. This love coupled with a drive to not let sleeping dogs lie led him to make a documentary film focusing on a subject that many people in Boise would prefer be buried in the past.
On Halloween night, 1955, three Boise men were arrested on charges of having sex with teenage boys. A larger investigation was conducted immediately, responding to a fear that the defendants' actions were not an isolated event, but in fact part of a larger "sex ring" taking place. When no evidence of the ring was found, investigators led a widespread witch hunt trying to expose all gay men in Boise. Former Boise Mayor Russell Edlesen stated at the time that over 1,400 men were investigated. Eventually 16 of those men were charged with infamous "crimes against nature" and sodomy. National media attention from Time magazine and newspapers from across the country added to the upheaval in Boise, stirring citizens into a frenzy to "crush the monster" that was homosexuality. The inflammatory investigations held public interest and in 1966 became the subject of non-fiction work, The Boys of Boise, by John Gerassi. Gerassi's book has been scrutinized for its less-than-flattering depiction of Boise and is also widely believed to contain many inaccuracies.
In 2000 Randal was faced with an important choice. He could move to Seattle to pursue an important and enticing job offer or he could stay in Idaho and make his film. He chose to stay because he knew there was a certain amount of urgency to his project. Someone had to make the film and dig deeper to find buried stories before the people who could tell them were no longer around. "This is a very revealing film about one of the darkest chapters in Boise's history," Randal states. "There were many, many people who did not want this film to be made."
The Fall of '55 is the result of six years of hard work. Randal calls his film a tremendous community project, and insists that it could not have been made without the local assistance and interest given by other filmmakers and members of the community. Partnering with historian Alan Virta, a former archivist at the Library of Congress and now the head of special collections at Boise State, Randal set out to find and interview anyone whose lives were touched by the scandal. Although they found many people anxious to participate, production ran into barriers, some logistical, some more threatening.
"I spoke with one man about his story and the very next day got a call from his sister who still lives here in town ... and was told very clearly to leave her brother alone," states Randal. The lead prosecutor from the cases, Blaine Evans, hung up on Randal when he called and refused to have any involvement in the film. The deputy prosecutor did meet with him, but declined to be interviewed on film.
Randal found over 100 people involved with the investigations. He is proud to include in his film an exclusive interview with the son of then-prominent Boise businessman Al Travelstead. Like many other men under attack, Travelstead fled the state rather than face impending and unwarranted arrest. Randal's film shows the aftermath of these actions and what effects this had and still has on the community.
Also included in The Fall of '55 is an interview with one of the convicted men, Mel Dir. Though he was originally sentenced to jail time, Dir had his sentence increased to prison time after he was caught engaging in sexual acts with a cellmate. Another story told in the film is that of Frank Jones, one of the teenage boys who admitted having sex with a defendant. Jones tragically ended his life many years later in a Boise motel room. The stories of ruined lives are many--men who fled the area and lost everything they had, or stayed and had their lives torn apart as they faced the witch hunt that was the result of bigotry. Homophobia ran not only through the heart of Boise, but through the center of the nation.
Randal's reason for making his film wasn't simply to stir up controversy, but to shed light on stories that have remained in the dark. In doing so, he is hopeful that a dialogue can be opened that will help the community heal. Asked what compelled him to make his film, Randal says, "Because it was a case of great consequence that happened in my backyard. How could you not address something like this?"
The Fall of '55 premieres June 10 in New York City at New Fest 2006, the 18th New York lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film festival. Randal has never been to New York before and is excited, nervous and "slightly terrified" to attend. Although he has spent the last six years of his life working on this film, spent his life savings and neglected all other areas of his life, Randal isn't going to be devastated if a film career isn't in the cards for him. He is just glad that the truth is finally getting out, and that it was told by someone who cares about the truth and about the Boise community.
Randal is hopeful that his film will show at other festivals across the country, and is anxious to hold a special showing in Boise as well. BW anxiously awaits that showing.