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What I learned from Greta Schiller’s beautiful film ‘Before Stonewall’

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, we should find inspiration in the unity and courage displayed by the LGBTQ community. Greta Schiller's film turned 35 this year, has been newly restored and provides an important cinematic document of the LGBTQ community's strength and resilience. And of the power of love.

The poster for the rerelease of Greta Schiller's 'Before Stonewall'
The poster for the rerelease of Greta Schiller's 'Before Stonewall'

There are endless lessons to be learned from how the LGBTQ community have managed to turn a basically homophobic society into the America that today can boast same-gender marriages in all its fifty states. The fight is not over but the power of the community is undeniable and able to overcome the most difficult hurdles placed before them.

‘Before Stonewall’ by Greta Schiller is being rereleased this week in NYC and next weekend in Los Angeles. In all its newly restored splendor, it celebrates the bravery of the LGBTQ community before the Stonewall Riots and delves into the actions and silent “revolutions” that lead up to them. For those who don’t know — have you been hiding under a rock, perhaps? — “in 1969 the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, leading to three nights of rioting by the city’s gay community,” as the film’s press kit illuminates. The violence began exactly on June 28th, 1969. It’s chilling to see the date approaching, it has only been 50 years, yet so much has changed. And some things haven’t.

I loved watching Schiller’s film and I’ll admit, it was my first time. When it was originally released, I was a teenager trying to make my way through adolescence, the discovery of boys, trying to get into clubs in NYC while underage and watching movies I should never have been allowed to watch. Many of my friends were beginning to feel doubts about their orientation and NYC was a great place to be for that, but I was too young to know, or understand.

I’m glad I watched ‘Before Stonewall’ now, because I managed to fall in love with the film, and its filmmaker. Aided by co-director Robert Rosenberg, Schiller weaves a tale of strength and fearlessness in the face of prejudice. Her film takes us through the entire 20th century and shows us how the last fifty years were actually fueled by the vision and courage of those who lived before then. The LGBTQ movement was and is a civil rights movement first and foremost, and we should never forget that.

Director Greta Schiller, photo courtesy of Jezebel Productions

Schiller, with the help of archive research director Andrea Weiss, found poignant footage of mainstream images that went against the grain and some perfectly pertinent Hollywood clips. Then, with the trio of extraordinary cinematographers Sandi Sissel, Jan Kraepelin and Cathy Zheutlin filmed insightful interviews with the likes Allen Ginsberg, Richard Bruce Nugent, Ann Bannon and Audre Lorde to bring the story home. 

The film touches on great American personalities and cultural figures like Langston Hughes, Tennessee Williams and Gertrude Stein, who came out of what Ginsberg calls a “Bohemian subculture”, this world of the “demimonde” as Alexander Dumas fils described it. A person in the demimonde went against the grain, contrary to traditional bourgeois values. 

So why do I believe that ‘Before Stonewall’ is a necessary watch in this day and age? Because we have started to become intolerant and unwelcoming to what is different from us. And some of the most beautiful, intelligent and cultural people in the world will always be different from us — count on it! So Schiller, with her perfectly told documentary and wonderfully entertaining film — yes both are necessary for me to enjoy a work of the 7th art — manages to show how acceptance is a beautiful word. One that should be at the very top of our vocabulary. One that leads to endless possibilities. 

‘Before Stonewall’ was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival, so don’t take my word for it, watch it for yourself.

The re-release marks the film’s 35th anniversary. First Run Features will open the film June 21 in NYC at The Quad and June 28 in LA at Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts.

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