Travel

Before ‘The Inspection,’ Elegance Bratton Traveled the World as a Combat Filmmaker

Elegance Bratton's new movie, 'The Inspection,' depicts his time in Marine boot camp in Hawaii, where he faced homophobia and found a community.

Portrait: Dominik Bindl/Getty Images; Design: Manali Doshi/Thrillist
Portrait: Dominik Bindl/Getty Images; Design: Manali Doshi/Thrillist
Portrait: Dominik Bindl/Getty Images; Design: Manali Doshi/Thrillist

Elegance Bratton has led a life of contradictions. At 16, his mother kicked him out for being gay. After 10 years of homelessness, he joined the United States Marine Corps, a backbreaking organization rife with homophobia. The new movie Bratton wrote and directed, The Inspection, fictionalizes his experience in boot camp, where he couldn’t acknowledge his sexuality but walked away refusing to bury it. Bratton says the film started out as “Beau Travail meets Falcon,” and that’s as much a contradiction as the rest of his biography: The former is a revered French art-house drama and the latter a popular gay-porn studio.

While homeless, Bratton stole clothes, food, and books, which is how he read about the work of directors like Spike Lee, Pedro Almodóvar, and Martin Scorsese. A former latchkey kid accustomed to fending for himself, he related to the unsupervised preteen Jodie Foster plays in Taxi Driver. So it was kismet when a recruiter recommended three jobs available to him in the Marines: intelligence aide, journalist, or filmmaker. Bratton immediately chose the last option.

He then spent three years as a videographer and photographer at Camp H.M. Smith on the Hawaiian island Oahu-“paradise,” Bratton calls it. This was the era of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, so he still didn’t dare admit he was gay, not even to someone who seemed sympathetic. Getting discharged would mean returning to a homeless shelter, and life was better with purpose and community.

“Serving in the Marine Corps was very traumatic for me. It still causes me a lot of psychological issues,” Bratton says. “At the same time, though, I found my family within this family. I was living in Hawaii with good friends and barbecue on the beach. I could go to Turtle Bay and snorkel and play tennis every day of the week. My whole point with this film was that more than one thing can be true at once. You would never think there would be allies in a place where there’s such ripe and thick homophobia. But I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for those people who saw the truth of who I was.”

Bratton was trained to shoot with the same type of handheld camera David Lynch used on the movie Inland Empire, something he knew because of those books he’d stolen. Most of the footage he captured-retirement ceremonies, gear demonstrations, humanitarian missions-wasn’t meant to be artful. Still, the experience planted seeds that bloomed as Bratton became a professional director.

“I’m watching men at the peak of their physical beauty working out and handling weapons, and I’m definitely aware of them being beautiful,” he recalls. “I was able to encode the things that I filmed with what I noticed while also keeping it under the radar of those who would terrorize me if they knew what I noticed. Now that I’m writing scripts and dealing with subtext, I’m using the camera to suggest the subtext of the script. Especially in The Inspection, the camera is very much a queer gaze. I can look back on that military stuff and say, ‘Oh, maybe this is where that started.'”

Patti Perret/A24
Patti Perret/A24
Patti Perret/A24

Bratton’s stint as a combat camera operator also took him to South Korea, Japan, and Thailand, where he befriended musicians and restaurateurs. He filmed and participated in a Royal Thai Marine Corps ritual in which infantrymen kill a male cobra in the jungle, drink its blood and semen with whisky, and exalt their stamina. After Bratton spent three years in Hawaii, a compassionate master gunnery sergeant asked if he’d like to finish out his five-year term as a military police officer in New York City, where he could get his own apartment and live the life he wanted.

And he did. Bratton is now married to Chester Algernal Gordon, a producer and costume designer. Together they made Pier Kids, a documentary about three homeless queer teenagers living on the famous Christopher Street Pier in downtown Manhattan. The project taught him to treat the camera less didactically. “That was the moment where it really shifted for me from the mechanical use of a machine into an expression of something internal that I wanted other people to understand,” he says.

However autobiographical, The Inspection marks Bratton’s first feature-length fiction film. The bigotry borne by Bratton’s analog, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope, star of Netflix’s Hollywood), butts up against the homoeroticism rippling through the barracks. With a sensuality that’s tender but never lurid, Bratton lingers on male bodies and indulges the fantasies building in Ellis’ head as he interacts with fellow recruits. More crucially, Bratton applies sensitivity to the push-and-pull of a militarized environment that many young gay men might find too antagonistic. For every ruthless disciplinarian (Bokeem Woodbine), there’s an officer (Raúl Castillo) who seems stuck in Ellis’ same closeted predicament.

Bratton made The Inspection in hopes of winning over his mother. She gave up on their relationship, but he never did. His mom is played by a stoic Gabrielle Union, an early favourite for a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 2023 Oscars. He suspected his mother would see The Inspection, or at least find out that an A-lister like Union was portraying her, at which point his accomplishment would be unignorable. Three days after The Inspection secured the financing needed for a green light, Bratton’s mother died. While cleaning out her house in New Jersey, Bratton found press clippings about his work that she’d left behind. Despite her silence, his mother had found her own way to express pride.

“The whole message of this movie is that chosen family is where you find it,” he says. “It’s not a pro- or anti-military film, and that’s intentional because I had all of these angels in uniform who knew my truth. It was healing for me.”

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Matthew Jacobs is a contributor to Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter @majacobs.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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