Recent Comments

    Historic Documentary Before Stonewall Gets a Re-Release

    By Gary Kramer–

    The newly restored 1984 documentary Before Stonewall will screen at the Roxie Theater on July 18, 19 and 22. The film—directed by Greta Schiller, co-directed by Robert Rosenberg and executive produced by John Scagliotti—traces LGBT visibility and pride, as well as homophobia in America up to the landmark riots.

    Through film clips, photographs and interviews with prominent members of the queer community (Harry Hay, Barbara Gittings, Allen Ginsburg, among others, as well as ordinary gay and lesbian folks), Before Stonewall shows how the queer community evolved, sometimes in secret. The filmmakers play up and break down stereotypes and they describe activist efforts and same-sex affections and attractions. They additionally describe illegal behavior, queer rebellion and the way that social attitudes in each decade changed—or how they need(ed) to change. The result is an empowering history lesson.

    In a recent conference call, Schiller and Rosenberg chatted with me for the San Francisco Bay Times about their historic documentary.

     Gary M. Kramer: Before Stonewall provides a history lesson of queer life through the lens of art, culture, politics and society. Can you talk about the decade by decade approach to show LGBT visibility?

     Robert Rosenberg: We were focusing on the twentieth century, based on the research John D’Emilio and Allan Berube did. It made sense to look at pre-WWII, WWII and the ’50s, and then the ’60s leading up the riots as the climax. It’s three acts. But we veer away from that with the butch/femme culture section that is not geared to any year. We went back and forth, but we were talking about each decade to bring the audience along and see how these radical queer activists didn’t just spring to life in whole cloth—it was the political, social and culture changes that lead to the Stonewall riots.

     Gary M. Kramer: Can you talk about incorporating the film clips, photographs and other materials that you use to illustrate each time period?

     Greta Schiller: We had the idea to make the film about the homophile movement, but it became very clear once we got funding that we wanted to go from turn of the century to the riots—that’s when homosexuals began to have a cultural identity. There wasn’t any archive to look up gay life in the ’50s, so the research director, Andrea Weiss, came up with strategies, spending hours in the national archives. She would pore over material. One example she gave, of the men exercising in WWII—who’s to say the men filming them weren’t gay? It was so homoerotic! So instead of looking at gay bar raids, Andrea looked for undesirables, drag queens, perverts and police raids. She joked she was a missing persons bureau organizing things. She also had to convince folks that their snapshots were history to let us use an image.

    Robert Rosenberg: There were some community-based LGBT archives. They didn’t have movie images, but they did have lots of photos and activist magazine covers. The more personal fill-in stuff we got from the community, but the movie images were difficult.

    Greta Schiller: Vito Russo, who found every queer representation in Hollywood film, was tight with Andrea and gave her the nightclub [film] clip with the swishing guys and the lavender cowboys scene.

    Gary M. Kramer: There were several examples of censorship issues—books and films in the ’20s and ’30s, as well as Howl in the ’60s. What can you say about the suppression of queer culture?

     Robert Rosenberg: One of the challenges was a lawsuit about being able to send [queer] material through the mail. Allen Ginsberg won a similar lawsuit.

    Greta Schiller: I remember talking to Barbara Grier, who was active in The Ladder. She told a story about how hard it was to get women to have their photo on the cover or inside their magazine. Communists were also closeted at the time; people outside the party didn’t know they were in the party, even though they were leaders. Homosexuals, same thing. They were closeted but out. It’s a weird thing.

    Robert Rosenberg: Lorraine Hansberry wrote for The Ladder under a pseudonym. For the majority of people, it was repressive and dangerous. We need to remember that and honor that as well.

    Gary M. Kramer: What were your criteria for whom to interview? The film features a mix of well-known and unknown people. How did you find them and get them to agree to discuss their lives/work?

     Robert Rosenberg: I contacted lots of people, asking if they knew people over 70. That’s how I found Ted Rolfs, who makes the comment, “From Stonehenge to Stonewall.” He volunteered at the San Francisco community center. He was a real find and not on the radar of historians. José Sarria, Harry Hay and Audre Lorde, we sought out.

    Greta Schiller: When we started the project, we put ads in print media and sent out press releases. We wanted people to be geographically dispersed as well: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York. We had local researchers. We put a call out that we were looking for this or that and we’d pre-interview folks so we could find the best people to represent a story from each decade. Donna—who talks about her girlfriend being put in a mental institute—we were in her house and she was flirting like crazy with Andrea. Andrea used her charm to get Donna to let us use her photographs. We had to seduce people to be on camera.

    Gary M. Kramer: What are your thoughts on how things have changed in the 35 years since you made the film?

    Robert Rosenberg: Ironically, I think that that moment in 1983, making the film, is now a historical moment for millennials. It’s before they were born.

    © 2019 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