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'Before Stonewall' Tracks the Pre-Movement Era

By Lauren Wissot

Long before marriage equality, non-binary gender identity, and the flood of new documentaries commemorating this month’s 50th anniversary of the Greenwich Village uprising that begat the gay rights movement, there was Greta Schiller’s Before Stonewall. Originally released in 1984—as AIDS was slowly killing off many of those bar patrons-turned-revolutionaries—the film, through the use of evocative archival footage, presents a remarkable portrait of queer life in the closeted time from the early 20th century right up until that fateful night in 1969.

To discuss this engaging history lesson-turned-lively time capsule—made all the more meaningful through first-person accounts from elderly lesbians and gays who survived both World War II and the war on their true selves—Documentary caught up via phone with the award-winning director, who personally supervised the 16mm restoration process of the film that opens June 28 in Los Angeles through First Run Features, following its June 21st premiere in New York City.

Documentary: It’s hard to believe that this film was shot over three decades ago. Can you talk about what was going on at the time that spurred you to make a doc about gays and lesbians in the pre-Stonewall era? Did the AIDS crisis, getting these folks on camera while they were still living, at all factor into your decision?

Greta Schiller: Well initially, the guy who became my co-director, Robert Rosenberg, came to me with an idea and said, “Hey, let's make a movie about the homophile movement.” He had a friend, John D’Emilio, whose story—it was an unpublished manuscript—I thought was a great idea. I was also inspired by two other films: Deborah Shaffer's film about the Lincoln Brigade, and Union Maids by Julia Reichert. They told radical histories—or “alternative histories,” as we called them then.

Using the testimony of people who lived through the time—I really loved that approach. And of course I was young, and this was my first film, so I had no idea how revolutionary in terms of film style it was at the time.

But it was a time when you believed you could just do this. When we got our first grants from the New York Council for the Humanities and the New York State Council on the Arts, we were so excited. So we quickly realized that the film had to expand beyond that relatively small aspect of history. And I was always a history buff; it’s just my personality. Anyway, we ended up deciding that the best way to tell the story was to start from the turn of the century because that was when the idea of gay and lesbian people formed as an identity, as opposed to just a sex act. 

And then of course the Stonewall Riots changed everything, so it was pretty clear that that's when the film had to end. But the thing is, the AIDS crisis was just beginning. I remember we were working in the edit room and starting to hear about Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, and no one knew what it was.

I had friends who were sick. One of my best friends, who moved to New York with me, was in the hospital in an iron lung. It was very traumatic, but that’s what they did back then. And the editor, the wonderful Bill Daughton, died of AIDS before the film received all of the acclaim. He died in 1986, so he missed so much of it.

D: So the initial idea didn’t come about because people were dying—that was coincidental?

VS: Correct. Vito Russo, who authored the book The Celluloid Closet, was a good friend of Andrea Weiss, the archival researcher who ended up winning an Emmy for her work on the film. He would call with—he called it “Spot the homo”—“Oh, I found another film that has some representation.” That's kind of how the research happened.

D: I just assumed the film’s genesis in the early ’80s had something to do with the AIDS crisis, with trying to capture history before it was wiped out. That's a crazy coincidence.

VS: Yeah, and as a matter of fact we've been revisiting a lot of this. Andrea, who I'm now married to, told me that she remembered that when her father found out she was working on the film, he said, “Be careful you don't get too close to the people you're working with because that's how…” People had no idea how AIDS spread. It was a very scary time.  

D: Did you conduct all the film’s interviews yourself?

VS: Oh, yeah, most of them. You gotta remember, though, finding people to be interviewed in the early ’80s was difficult. There were no legal protections for gays and lesbians. You could still lose your job, your house. You might be shunned by your family or worse. And lesbians who came out were losing their children to their ex-husbands. It was just a scary time.

So Andrea set up a network of researchers in six different cities around the country. The goal was twofold. One was to try and find people who could tell us their story—but also look through their personal collections, and convince them that their scrapbook or their home movie had historical value. That was really, really hard—especially for women and people of color who had so much more to lose. They were so much more reticent about appearing on camera, or talking to anyone. 

We did pre-interviews on reel-to-reel tape and then transcribed those. Then we put together a very rough storyline. From there I said, Okay, we'll go out and interview these people.  

Though I did almost all of the interviews myself, Robert Rosenberg did the Frank Kameny interview in DC. Also, Jewelle Gomez, who was active in one of the first black lesbian groups, was a researcher. I thought we'd get a better interview if she was the one who talked to Mabel Hampton. Oh, and Andy Kopkind interviewed Allen Ginsberg.

D: So were there any people you tried to get on camera but couldn’t?

VS: Yeah, there were people that we really wanted, like the Daughters of Bilitis founders. They wouldn't be in the film, though we never really understood why. Luckily, the late Debra Chasnoff made a short film about them. I think they were the first lesbian couple to be married. 

And then there was Marsha P. Johnson, whom Andrea met at her apartment in New Jersey. She just didn't make the cut to be interviewed for some reason. Who would have known she would become such a seminal figure?

At one point I actually said during production, “I don't care how interesting, how articulate, how handsome, how good the story of another white man is, we just cannot talk to them. I can't hear the story. We need women and people of color." And then we just focused on that.

D: So when you look at the film today, when you were working on this newly restored version, was there a moment when you said, “If I could go back, I would have done this differently”?

VS: I just love the movie. I spent many, many hours in the restoration process, and I just grew to have so much awe that we even pulled it off because it was my first feature doc. Nobody on the project had ever made a feature documentary. So no, I don't usually feel that way.

D: One of the most revelatory aspects of the film for me was the role World War II—and perhaps even World War I—played in creating homosexual communities. But it’s also a bit disturbing to think that had it not been for horrific wars, people might still be in the closet. So what drew you to that angle?

VS: You mean the formation of communities? I think Allan Bérubé was doing a slide-show presentation. That was popular then with independent historians because gay and lesbian history was not a discipline yet. So we just had to do primary research, and also work with the few historians that were focused on specific aspects of it in order to come to a cohesive story. And then I met Johnnie Phelps, who told me her story about convincing Eisenhower not to discharge lesbians from the Women’s Army Corps. I almost fainted. But it was the resilience and the strength of people who knew who they were that really excited me—and it still does when I see it. In the context of today, they continue to be very brave individuals.  

Two male soldiers, circa WWII. From Greta Schiller’s 'Before Stonewall.'  Courtesy of First Run Features

D: Like Frank Kameny, who was fired by the government for being gay and took his case to court rather than quietly go away.

VS: And Frank Kameny lived long enough to be invited to the White House by Obama and receive a personal pardon.

D: I'm surprised nobody's done a documentary specifically about him. Or maybe they have.

VS: I don't think so. Before Stonewall couldn’t even be made today because only two or three of the people we interviewed are even still alive.

D: It’s wonderful that you got them on camera.  

VS: We were definitely the only ones. I just happened to read an article that Andrea's writing for The Atlantic about the research process. Going into the archive back then, she had to look for “perverts” and “inverts” and “police raids,” really go under the bar to try and find images. 

And also to look at images in a different way. At one point when she was researching she heard the story about lesbians going to softball games to find other lesbians. And then she thought, Why can't we just use images of women playing softball? Some of those women had to be lesbians, you know? If mathematically there are homosexuals in every area of society, of course they're gonna be in the archive. They're just not named.  

D: How much footage were you actually dealing with?

GS: Andrea spent two years on the archival research and the personal collections, and sitting in the National Archives at a time when you would just ask for a reel and it would come up on brittle 35-millimeter. And you'd have to wear white gloves and thread it up, and then mark the pieces that you wanted to have copied onto film for the edit. 

It was this incredibly laborious and intense process. It was not like today, where you make a phone call and the next day they send you a stream of archive. Then again, I think that you see a lot of film using the same material because people don't go to the archives and look anymore. And very often the person in the archive is just a clerk. Some of them know the archive, and some of them don't.  

D: Did you encounter a lot of surprising images that you weren’t expecting to use?

GS: Oh, of course. And then to know who the people were. You had to have a knowledge of American history to know that was Roy Cohn, and why that was such an important…I think we actually got that footage from Emile de Antonio, who was kind of a mentor to me. He had made a film about the McCarthy hearings, and it was only archive, and he gave me access to those.

D: I really do love that McCarthy clip, where he’s jokingly debating the words “pixie” and “fairy” with another congressman, with Roy Cohn sitting uncomfortably by his side. The image is so strong. You don’t have to say anything.

GS: Exactly. And everybody reads it a little differently. But the other thing is, we did find some footage that we thought, This is just too good. For example, we found this footage of an interracial, all-women’s jazz band called the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. We were gonna use it to show women doing untraditional things during World War II—the men were away and the women could play. But then we realized it was a film in and of itself. So we didn't put that footage in, and instead Andrea and I went on to make International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

D: But did you find anything that shattered preconceived notions you might have had?

GS: Well, I didn't really, but remember, I was 26 years old. I was a history buff, but I wasn't a student of history. I was a women's studies major, so I knew a lot about the portrayal of women, and the place of women in society, and the way that society dictates. Of course that doesn't mean people live within the dictates.

Also, I grew up in a public housing project on the outskirts of a university town, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. All my friends were black and Mexican and white, so for me this idea of what they now call intersectionality—that was just where I came from and who I was. I think that influenced the film a lot. But we were such pioneers that everything was a surprise in a way.

D: Back in the ’80s there wasn't a lot of representation of people of color in the media.

GS: Oh, no. You know, people can talk the talk, but when it comes down to actually including different perspectives, there's always a reason to exclude. Like, “We want women, but you're the wrong woman.” Or “He's an interesting guy, but he’s a black guy so he doesn't exactly fit the story.” You just get so much of that.

D: Your film almost exclusively features gays and lesbians. Did you have problems finding trans people to go on camera? You said Marsha P. Johnson didn't want to go on camera, right?

GS: To tell you the truth, I wouldn't necessarily say that she didn't want to go on camera. That would be the one mistake I feel I made. We decided not to interview her for some reason. I suppose she would have wanted to go on camera, I don't know.

Now Audre Lorde…I had friends who were friends with her. I knew women of her generation who were role models in the sense of women's history to me. I knew those people tangentially and they knew Audre, of course. So I came with a little bit of a calling card.

But regardless, Audre Lorde said, “I have to approve the use of my interview.” It was the first and only time I've ever agreed to that. Now that's pretty standard, but back then that was considered really—my executive producer, John Scagliotti, just about had a heart attack when I said I’d agreed to that! It wasn't considered journalistically sound. But I felt she’d been burned before and I wanted to respect her. I also had total confidence that she was gonna like my film. Where that came from, I don’t know.

It was an age of incredible optimism. But then you also think, it was Anita Bryant time. We thought Reagan was the worst thing that ever happened. We opened the film with him. Who would've known we would end up with Trump? They’re not even on the same scale.

D: Well, Reagan wouldn't speak about AIDS until years into the crisis, so I don't know if we want to give him a pass.

GS: No, no, no, I don't want to give him a pass. I agree.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.