BFI FLARE REVIEW: “Honouring the Fans Who Fight Back” – ‘United We Fan’ (2019)

Honouring the fans who fight back.

Documentary United We Fan shines a spotlight on the determined efforts fans have gone to for their favourite shows. The film delves beneath the surface of these communities in order to honour devoted individuals.

Putting faces to legacies, United We Fan centrally chronicles the works of three women who are the brains behind the show-saving campaigns: Dorothy Swanson, founder of Viewers for Quality Television (VQT) and responsible for a fan activist movement that brought shows back from cancellation; Bjo Trimble, “the lady who saved Star Trek”, and her husband John Trimble, who together headed an unprecedented campaign to save the show; and Kaily Russell, who is in the midst of trying to revive the show Person of Interest. These three interweaving interview narratives present how these individuals tested the limits of control that fan communities are able to exercise on TV show networks.

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The documentary neatly structures sit-down interviews to present these fans at their different stages of activism,exploring the level of personal commitment required to dedicate excessive amounts of their personal time to a single cause. Picking and choosing from the many fanbases that exist with the expansion of online communities, director Michael Sparaga clearly finds a familiarity in couple Bjo and John Trimble, who lay out the foundation which the documentary goes on to navigate. Their shared love for Star Trek knows no bounds. The Trimbles, as they are fondly known, still appear as guests of honour at fan conventions.

Centred on a pocket of extremely dedicated individuals, the film succeeds in an effort to not fall back on stereotypical depictions of ‘crazed fans’, instead bringing to the surface personalities and identities that exist behind the online comments. In Kaily’s case, her devotion to Person of Interest has led to personal connections.

“I could be crazy with other people.”

Kaily Russell

Kaily preaches about the importance of a community that has grown into a supportive network of friendships. United We Fan is heartfelt in how it allows interviewees to be vulnerable on camera and share their personal experience of how their fandoms have changed their lives. The hardcore dedication of some individuals is not only a passion project, some have even made it a business venture.

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Dorothy Swanson’s crusade offers another narrative-based crutch. Her remarkable feat started as one woman’s dedication and evolved into the leadership of thousands of members. As VQT president and chief editor of the VQT monthly publication, Dorothy is a force to be reckoned with. Her grassroots idea grew into an influential, business group that had network executives’ heads turning. Dorothy laid the groundworks of fan activism and her clear personal investment is phenomenal. The emotional connection unites these individual narrative strands and the documentary pieces together interview segments neatly to keep a focused momentum.

United We Fan finds its footing in these moments, focused on respectful recognition that honours the continued legacy of these individuals. Their infectious joy is the driving force, but the film knows that, spending as little time away from interviewees as possible. Bjo and John Trimble’s relationship offers moments of comedy as Bjo nudges her husband to silence him before he starts a story that is not fit for telling. The pair are instantly loveable and the heart-warming humour alongside an honest sincerity ensures the documentary remains emotionally engaging.

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One aspect covered in United We Fan is queer fandom and queer-baiting. More time could have been spent further unravelling this topic in the documentary. Noting that a disturbingly large percentage of LGBTQ+ characters are killed off is briefly discussed in relation to the cultural moment. Conversation highlights a confrontation of the ‘dead lesbian trope’ and Kaily speaks to the betrayal of queer-baiting, clearly emotional as she explains a character death felt as though “it was like an actual friend dying.” United We Fan does not offer anything particularly new on the subject. Commentary surrounding representation does not become a central part of the documentary’s composition, which seems a shame considering engaged interviewees were available. A further discussion had the potential to be intriguing. The debate over the moral intention surrounding queer-baiting is brief, cutting between creators and fans demonstrates the seemingly present separation between them.

United We Fan highlights the importance of the supportive and inclusive nature that exists in fandom. Those featured in the documentary reflect that an impact is possible and that every voice counts. In an ode to the fans, the documentary exhibits the gratifying outcome of when strangers become family.