Hard News by Russell Brown

1

100 Men and a million stories

Paul Oremland was born gay in a New Zealand where homosexual conduct was a criminal offence, to deeply religious parents who regarded it as a mortal sin. Not long after a disastrous attempt to pray away the gay by studying to become a preacher ("I began hallucinating") he fled it all by flying to London in 1979.

He soon found himself working in a gay cinema club, where his duties included editing out the cumshots in the 16mm films when the inspector was due to visit – and splicing them back after the inspector left. Before long he was the boss – which meant being the one to deliver the monthly protection money to the local mobsters.

The kid who'd escaped into outsider literature as a teen was suddenly in Soho, living it. And he began to meet hundreds, and eventually thousands, of "really interesting people" – by having sex with them.

Such is the narrative of 100 Men, Oremland's thoughtful, absorbing – and frequently funny – new documentary, which premieres in this year's International Film Festival.

Not long after he returned to New Zealand for good in 2010, Oremland began making a list of his sexual partners, just to remember them. The list developed into a chronology and eventually into 100 Men, a film that tracks social change over his lifetime – and takes stock not only of what has been gained, but what's been lost.

It's also a film that sets the director's own life and work in context – some of its stories were told first in the short films that are excerpted in it. Oremland admits he had to be persuaded by Film Commission CEO Dave Gibson that it was essential that he appear in his own film.

He's a gentle, surpassingly pleasant man of 60 ("My Grindr age is 55") and acknowledges that some people might be surprised by the sexual intensity of his past.

"I'm probably typical of a number of gay men. Not all gay men, but of a particular generation. It didn't seem unusual because most of the people around me were doing exactly the same."

Some of the exes on his list couldn't be tracked down and others were still closeted – or dead. And one well-known name isn't there because, well, he just wasn't hot enough.

"I met Freddie Mercury at an orgy and had sex with him," says Oremland. "It's not that interesting. I was more interested in some other guys there who were more sexy. Someone said, oh, do you know who's down there? That's Freddie Mercury. Did you know you just had sex with Freddie Mercury? He was a star by then, but I was more excited by that world of mobsters and rent boys. It was all so glamorous."

Those who do appear on camera do much of the work in exploring the film's themes.

Former Capital Gay journalist Chris Woods laments the "emotional retardation" imposed on young gay men by having to explore relationships in secret and speaks movingly of watching a police van chasing "for sport" an elderly man who had ventured to Hampstead Heath for clandestine sex.

'Gary the Optician' notes that "the old bar system" that prevailed when homosexuality was legal but less-accepted in Britain meant that men of different classes were often shoulder-to-shoulder: "There was much more a mixture of society. It'd be more likely that a guy who had an ordinary council job would meet somebody who was into opera."

It was the solidarity of the ghetto – and it dissipated with social acceptance.

"I do mourn that loss," says Oremland. "I worry about not having that as protection – because it was a form of protection, and it was also a community. It's really interesting, even when I grew up in New Zealand, which was a long time ago, there were more gay venues when I was teenager than there are now.

"In London I spent much of my time in Islington and Highbury. There were three bars in the area – most weekends I would go there and it was very much a community. I would see friends, gossip … Grindr doesn't replace that."

Of course, he adds, "one would not want to go back to the fear. I was queer-bashed three times. People I know who couldn't cope with being gay committed suicide. And the idea of marriage and everything is just amazing. But if you're going to just sink back into the background you've lost something."

Oremland experienced the rights struggle in Britain, where he made the first gay TV shows for Channel 4 (Conservative MPs responded by demanding the new channel be taken off air). He returned years later to a different New Zealand. But one where for many men their sexuality is still something to be hidden.

"I can go online at any time of the day and there'll be a swathe of Tongan or Samoan guys who go to church on Sunday, are completely straight and getting married – but want to come around and have sex. And that's huge."

Marriage itself is a mixed blessing. Many gay men are used to close, long-term relationships that are not monogamous. Oremland doesn't see that being surrendered in the age of marriage equality.

And yet, the film deepened his relationship with his own long-term partner, John, who is seen, but not interviewed. In the way of these things, Oremland's late father never accepted his son's sexuality – but became close friends with John.

He's looking forward already to his next project: a feature called Miracle, in which "God is forced to intervene when a gay vicar wants to marry his longtime boyfriend in the church. It becomes a big story and all hell breaks loose."

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A version of this story appeared in the New Zealand Herald's Weekend magazine on July 15 and it is used here with permission.

100 Men screens at the NZ International Film festival on July 23 and August 1 in Auckland,  August 9 and 10 in WellingtonAugust 16 and 17 in Christchurch and August 19 and 21 in Dunedin.

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