New media collective reveals Ray Hill mini-doc.
by Megan Smith
Ever seen a pony wearing pink lipstick, blue eye shadow, and, on occasion, 3-D glasses? You might have if you’ve been to the bar at Lola’s Depot or the bathroom of NOTSUOH—on a sticker, that is. So who is this dolled-up diva of a horse? He’s the logo of Proud Pony International, Houston’s new media collective founded by openly gay filmmakers Jarrod Gullett and Travis Johns.
After deciding to give up the hustle of freelance film work, Johns teamed up with Gullett and used their wonderful connections to build the team of artists, musicians, makeup artists, and crew members—or as Gullett describes it, “a long-term family”—that is Proud Pony. The collective has already produced a diverse selection of both personal and commercial films, including an oral history project for the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston’s sixty-fifth anniversary this October, a music video, and a series of comedic shorts. “So we went from an oral history project to a music video to a commercial spot,” Johns says. “I like the diversity that you’re not just working on one type of thing.”
“The thing that we try to achieve with our personal projects that keeps it interesting for us is that we always try to do things that the whole team finds challenging on some level, because we want to keep growing and expanding,” Gullett adds. “There are lots of production companies in the world, and we like to think we go further than a lot of people in detail and attention to beauty and narrative. Travis is a writer, a director, an editor, and an incredibly talented motion graphics person, so we can fill any need we choose with the full team and crew, and it’s kind of fun to see how far we can go. We like to keep moving forward and not just be stagnant.”
Proud Pony previously hosted a movie night and picnic on the lawn at Independence Art Studios to showcase a compilation of their older works, newer pieces, and projects never seen before. The event drew about one hundred guests and left audience members asking the collective to host another as soon as possible. “It was a blast,” Johns says. “It really was.”
“As a baby company who not only makes commercial content but original content, one of the things we hope to achieve is building an audience,” Gullett stresses. “I like to think that we make things that are entertaining. We like doing it, but we want people to want to watch it as well.”
Currently, the collective is working on a mini-documentary featuring Ray Hill, one of the nation’s most iconic leaders in the gay rights and prison reform movements. After initially meeting Hill at a Houston Media Source open house, Gullett and Johns, amazed by the stories he told, set up a time to sit down and talk with him further. This meeting—which the filmmakers estimated would take about thirty minutes—lasted two and a half hours and was filled with unbelievable stories of the activist’s life.
Hill described his hometown, his family, and his coming-out story, and he spoke of his Houston and national activism, his time as a convict, and a time when there were only twenty people in the gay rights movement from coast to coast. “Sometimes people who are older are kind of pushed aside,” Gullett says. “Sitting with Ray made it all the more clear to me why it is important to engage our elders. Ray has experience and he has knowledge that can only come through doing and living and trying and failing and succeeding. There’s a great lesson to be learned there as well.”
Johns recounts one story, in particular, that Hill told involving 1960s police raids on lesbian bars. During this time, a woman wearing jeans with a front zipper was considered to be cross-dressing—an act that was then considered a crime. If a raid occurred, women would run to the bathroom and put their pants on backward to avoid arrest. “A lot of younger gays don’t know that if you got caught in a gay bar in 1967, your name was put in the paper and your life was over, because you had to be in the closet [to survive],” Johns says. “Now when you go out on a Friday night, you just have to worry about parking.”
Houston’s Voice, an interactive web-based media network sponsored by Comcast that allows Houstonians to contribute content highlighting new ideas, events, people, and places, will feature Proud Pony’s mini-documentary on Hill as part of their “Community Voices” online series. “I commend Houston’s Voice for wanting to include the gay community, which is a big chunk of Houston, and perhaps not as well represented,” Kim Hogstrom, co-producer of the mini-documentary says. “You never know who may be inspired to not quit or to be themselves, just by viewing the story of someone relatable,” Houston’s Voice spokesperson Margo Williams adds. “We hope to expand minds with Ray’s story and be a platform to encourage tolerance and celebration of differences and diversity.”
However, fitting Hill’s numerous stories and life accomplishments into a three-to-five-minute film is hardly an easy task. Both Johns and Gullett want to give each of these stories the time they deserve, and they believe Hill’s message is important enough to eventually be developed into a longer film for a national audience. “We want this short piece that we’re making first to be impactful and contain as much information as possible, but there is so much material beyond that,” Gullett says. “I think we would both love to pursue the idea of continuing this project beyond this first incarnation. It’s just a grand adventure.”
Proud Pony International’s mini-documentary is expected to be released mid-July at houstonsvoice.com. For more information and to view the collective’s past projects, visit vimeo.com/proudpony.