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    The Cult of JT LeRoy Presents Cautionary, Fascinating Tale About the Nature of Fame

    garyOne of the highlights at this year’s Independent Film Fest is local filmmaker Marjorie Sturm’s The Cult of JT Leroy, playing at the Roxie in San Francisco on February 7 and 15 at 12:30 pm; and February 8 at 7:15 pm.

    Sturm’s film is a terrific documentary about the author of Sarah, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and other novels. Said to be a 15-year-old prostitute, who was addicted to drugs, homeless, transgender, and HIV+, LeRoy gained an international following and many celebrity fans, ranging from actors Susan Dey and Ben Foster to musicians Shirley Manson and Lou Reed.

    However, the author is deceitful above all things too. As the film deftly chronicles LeRoy’s meteoric rise to fame, there is the surprising revelation that the author does not actually exist! LeRoy was, in fact, the fictional creation of San Francisco resident Laura Albert.

    filmSturm films in and around the Bay Area, and features interviews with local celebrities, including writer Stephen Beachy, who exposed the hoax in a New York magazine piece in 2005; out author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore; and musician Stephan Jenkins of “Third Eye Blind.” She also includes the recorded testimony LeRoy’s therapist Dr. Terrence Owens. Sturm artfully weaves together these interviews, with footage of bookstore readings where LeRoy appeared, but was too shy to speak—so celebrities read his work in his place. Sturm also shrewdly features animated sequences to provide context on Albert’s reasons for creating the hoax, and news items about the phenomenon that was JT LeRoy.

    film2The film is a remarkable assessment of the impact LeRoy had on his fans and celebrity culture. Those who bought into his story and found truth in his writing are not judged, even if Sturm probably relishes presenting all of the contradictory, ironic quotes.

    As The Cult of JT LeRoy exposes Albert’s ability to perpetrate a hoax, and the legal battles that resulted once the devastating truth came out, Sturm considers the ramifications of Albert’s actions. The film is a fascinating cautionary tale about the nature of fame and how people will often believe the unbelievable.

    In a recent phone interview for the San Francisco Bay Times, Sturm discussed her film.

    Gary M. Kramer: How did you first learn about JT LeRoy?

    Marjorie Sturm: I didn’t know anything about LeRoy when I started filming in May of 2002. I didn’t know the books at all. I thought there was something strange, but I didn’t know what it was. Then I followed the strangeness from 2003–2006. Then when the truth was revealed, I wrote Stephen Beachy an email to thank him for resolving it. I think a lot of people in San Francisco had this “What’s going on?” response.

    Gary M. Kramer: What prompted you to make the documentary?

    Marjorie Sturm: I made it in waves. In 2002–2003, I was working with the homeless and mentally ill in the Tenderloin. I had the footage sitting in my closet and I was blown away when I read the magazine piece Beachy wrote. When Beachy resolved it, he encouraged me to start shooting again and he gave me his contacts: Brian Pera, Bruce Benderson, Dennis Cooper, etc. and I would follow those leads to other people. The project kept snowballing—especially with the trial.

    Gary M. Kramer: What can you say about the “cult” that formed around LeRoy?

    Marjorie Sturm: The reverence for JT was fascinating. I’m not one to do hero worship. It was weird and interesting to be surrounded by celebrities who loved this character. That was my introduction to it. It’s just so over the top. The unreality of our culture and the construct of a celebrity are pushed over the edge, so the fake celebrity gets this zenith moment.

    Gary M. Kramer: What observations do you have about the power of celebrity?

    Marjorie Sturm: In our culture, it cannot be overestimated. Our culture is narcissistic and people bow to it. It’s deeply embedded and not healthy for the celebrity or other people. As Panio Gianopoulps said in the film, enabling LeRoy was “pleasurable altruism.”

    Gary M. Kramer: I really like testimony you included of the therapist, Dr. Owens. Can you discuss that?

    Marjorie Sturm: He’s one of the most interesting threads. I had to work really hard to get his footage, which I knew was public domain. He adds a whole layer. The [hoax] was revealed to him by the way it was revealed to me. Then he took on Laura as a client (!)

    Gary M. Kramer: Did you have any response from Laura Albert while making the film?

    Marjorie Sturm: She’s actually tried to have me abandon my film, which has been really intense and crazy. She’s very legally pro-active in trying to control the story as much as she can. A lot of what she did [with JT LeRoy] is unethical, but it’s not against the law. There’s a fine line. I wanted to debunk her lies.

    © 2015 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer