queer cinema

 

R_Camina - Headshot-Gerry Szymanski copyFILMMAKER PROFILE: Robert L. Camina

The shooting at Pulse was not the first mass LGBT murder in U.S. history. On June 24, 1973, 32 were killed at the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans, when an arson attack occurred trapping people on the second floor behind the barred windows of this popular gay bar. Never heard of this? You’re not alone. Neither had filmmaker Robert L. Camina before he made the award-winning documentary UPSTAIRS INFERNO.

GED:    When did you first learn about the Upstairs Lounge fire, and what drove you to make this film?

Robert L. Camina: I thought I knew my gay history. When somebody told me about this tragedy I was shocked! I asked myself, “why isn’t this story more prevalent in our culture?” It’s as historic as the Stonewall Inn raid, but it doesn’t exist in the common LGBT history narrative. I felt that needed to change. The more I learned about the fire the more important this project became. I wanted to humanize the story and show the real impact the fire had on the victims’ friends, families and the LGBT movement.

It’s our responsibility to honor the memories of those who came before us, including those who died at the Up Stairs Lounge. The people who experienced this tragedy paved the way for the freedoms enjoyed by the New Orleans LGBT community of today, as well as the overall LGBT movement.

GED:  Was it difficult to find the survivors and convince them to take part in the film?

Camina: When production began on UPSTAIRS INFERNO, it had almost been 40 years since the fire. Many of the survivors have passed away. However, with the help of the internet, I was able to locate quite a few survivors, friends/family members of the victims, or witnesses. Once I located these people, I made sure that they knew I wasn’t looking to exploit them. Asking people to resurrect these painful memories is a huge request, and I had to respect their boundaries. For some, it took longer for them to agree to be part of the project, but they saw what I was trying to accomplish and they decided they wanted to make sure that the memories of their friends and loved ones were never forgotten. When it came time for the interviews, we had already broken the ice and they knew who I was. I think that comes across in the film and it makes their stories much more powerful.

GED:  Lately no one can talk about your film without mentioning the recent massacre at Pulse. What are the most striking parallels and/or most glaring differences you can draw between these two events?

Camina: For nearly 43 years the arson at the Up Stairs Lounge, an event that claimed 32 lives, was considered the largest gay mass murder in U.S. history. It’s with tremendous grief we must recognize that’s no longer the case. With 49 dead, the mass shooting at Pulse now holds that dubious title. Whether bullets or arson, this is a stark reminder that while the LGBTQ community has achieved a lot in its fight for equality, there are many people who still feel that LGBTQ lives are expendable.

What we learned in the wake of the Up Stairs Lounge arson, is that this tragedy will have a tremendous psychological impact, not only for those directly impacted by the shooting, but throughout the entire LGBTQ community.

I hope that we’re able to apply the lessons learned and react with compassion after such a tragedy. Fortunately, I think we are already seeing that. Unlike after the 1973 New Orleans gay mass murder, most political leaders are already expressing compassion, grief and determination for justice. Communities across the world held vigils, standing in solidarity with Orlando. That didn’t happen in 1973. Over $7.2 million dollars have been raised for Pulse victims through a GoFundMe account. In the aftermath of the Up Stairs Lounge arson, only $17,900 was raised through the National New Orleans Memorial Fund. And while the outpouring of compassion is far greater than in 1973, there are still community and religious leaders callously turning their backs to the victims and the LGBT community.

UPSTAIRS INFERNO poster - June 2016_1GED:  Why do you think this tragedy isn’t more widely known amongst the public or even within the LGBT community?

Camina: The impression that I am getting is that people were embarrassed or ashamed. The fire did not launch a revolution, and the little activism that was spawned from the tragedy fizzled out very quickly. I’m told that it didn’t take long before New Orleans saw indifference within the community after the fire. (However, there are mixed opinions on whether the fire was a birth of gay rights activism in New Orleans, which is something we explore in UPSTAIRS INFERNO.) Also, you have families that didn’t claim their dead children. As a collective community, that is shameful and embarrassing.  You also have a prime suspect who is a member of the LGBT community. Evidence points to the fact that this horrific crime was committed by one of our own. Furthermore, there isn’t any official closure.  Police weren’t able to charge anyone with the crime. While the evidence points to a primary suspect committing the crime, there is no justice. Lastly, I think few people know about the story because it is still too painful for people to talk about.

GED:  How did Christopher Rice become attached to this project?

Camina: When looking for a narrator, I wanted someone who was passionate about LGBT issues and passionate about New Orleans. Chris immediately came to mind. He considers New Orleans his hometown, and he is very passionate about keeping its history alive! I knew that passion would come across in his narration. As a New York Times best selling author, much of his writing is heavily influenced by the years he and his Mom (legendary vampire chronicler, Anne Rice) lived in New Orleans. I contacted him, and he was immediately on-board.

GED: Before UPSTAIRS INFERNO your previous film, RAID OF THE RAINBOW LOUNGE, recounts the 2009 police raid of a Fort Worth, TX gay bar. As you seem to have a talent for your documentaries shining lights on darker pieces of LGBT history, do you feel a draw toward Orlando to explore elements of this tragedy?

Camina: I’ve been asked this question a lot recently, and I am humbled by the fact that people trust me to tell these types of stories with compassion and authority. I do not take that trust for granted. The Pulse mass murder cut me to the core. Having surrounded myself with stories of violence and death for the past 7 years, I don’t think my spirit is strong enough to take on the Orlando story. I’m still processing the senseless violence and grief on a personal level. I think it’s too soon for a documentary about the tragedy. It’s only been month and as the OrlandoStrong hashtags disappear, the survivors and the families/friends of the victims are still going through the grieving process. I don’t think a camera in the face will help in the healing process right now.

GED:  Besides just being a historical record, what do you think we can learn from seeing UPSTAIRS INFERNO?

Camina: This is a gruesome story, there is no way around it and in light of the recent mass shooting at the gay nightclub in Florida, the parallels strike a painful chord. Hopefully, now, more than ever, audiences walk away from the film with a renewed call for compassion: Compassion for those unlike us. Compassion for those who are hurting. Compassion for those in need.  Because there definitely wasn’t a lot of compassion when the deadly arson occurred. In addition, I hope the film acts as a stark reminder that we need to seize the day. We need to make sure we tell our loved ones every day that we love them, because we don’t know what lies ahead. Life is fickle and unpredictable. Today may be our last chance.

GED:  How can people see UPSTAIRS INFERNO?

Camina: UPSTAIRS INFERNO is currently playing the film festival circuit, and there are many screenings scheduled through the Fall. You can “LIKE” our Facebook page for the latest updates: Facebook.com/UpstairsInferno or visit the “Screenings” tab on our website UpstairsInferno.com for the latest screening information.

 

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