Newly-Restored, Award-Winning Film ‘Before Stonewall’ Takes Us Through An Important LGBTQ History Timeline

‘Before Stonewall’ poster

Every June we celebrate Pride month, and in 2019 it’s extra special because it also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, where it all began. While there are still plenty of rights to be fought for and maintained when it comes to the LGBTQ community, it’s important to know the history of how far we have come in the United States. In 1984 a groundbreaking feature length documentary film called ‘Before Stonewall’ was released by then-newcomer filmmaker Greta Schiller. At a time when it was still very taboo to talk about anything to do with the LGBTQ community in public, let alone in cinema and television, this film marked the breakthrough in the type of documentary storytelling that would give voice to people who were so used to being marginalized and silenced.

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. With this outpouring of courage and unity the gay liberation movement had begun. ‘Before Stonewall’ pries open the closet door, setting free the dramatic story of the sometimes horrifying public and private existences experienced by LGBT Americans since the early 1900’s. Revealing and often humorous, this widely acclaimed film relives the emotionally-charged sparking of today’s gay rights movement, from the events that led to the fevered 1969 riots to many other milestones in the brave fight for acceptance. Experience the fascinating and unforgettable, decade-by-decade history of homosexuality in America through eye-opening historical footage and amazing interviews with those who lived through an often brutal closeted history.

Narrated by iconic author Rita Mae Brown, the film includes interviews with Ann Bannon, Martin Duberman, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Gittings, Harry Hay, Mabel Hampton, Dr. Evelyn Hooker, Frank Kameny, Audre Lorde, Richard Bruce Nugent, Jose Sarria and many more.

For its groundbreaking achievements, ‘Before Stonewall’ was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival. And as the first film on an LGBTQ topic to receive funding from Public Television, the film went on to win two Emmys for its PBS broadcast.

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the film, as well as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, ‘Before Stonewall’ has been newly restored and is getting a theatrical re-release via First Run Features nationwide, opening June 21 in NY and June 28 in LA. There is so much in this film that is till relevant to today’s conversations, and we had a chance to speak with Greta Schiller herself about her own personal journey and the reaction from audiences across multiple generations who are continually being impacted by her work.

Portrait of documentary filmmaker Greta Schiller, courtesy of Jezebel Productions.

When you originally made the film it was said you “took on this project with such naivety and zeal”.  Did you think it would have such a long lifespan when you were making it and the kind of impact it has had? 

Definitely not! I was in my mid-20s when we started this. We were all kids and previously I had made a short fiction film in film school, ‘Greta’s Girl’, and I was part of a team that made a film about the first national march on Washington in 1979. Then we made ‘Before Stonewall’ and from there I got invited to the precursor to the Sundance Film Festival which was called the USA Festival and the only other gay film that was there was Rob Epstein with ‘Harvey Milk’. We were pacing the lobby during the screening so anxiously! Then I went to the Berlin Film Festival and then literally the rest is history. It broke box office records in the US. It’s always been available with platforms like iTunes and others, but with the restored master and then it showing again at the Berlin Film Festival in 2016, a whole slew of film festivals have been inviting me. I got invited to be the featured filmmaking in the Mumbai Queer Film Festival this June. 

The impact it had back then it was really breaking new ground and it showed the power of filmmaking. Because film really can change culture and hearts and minds. What would you say to people who dismiss media or entertainment as just something for escapism? 

There is a place for just pure entertainment. We still need that. But what I like to think about with ‘Before Stonewall’ is it’s entertaining, engaging and you learn something along the way. And I think that’s a hard thing to crack, especially with historical documentaries which are often seen as this droning male voice telling you what’s happened and why. And we were like, no this is a film that’s gonna both tell the history and celebrate the history. 

‘Before Stonewall’ image

Would you do anything different if you were to make the film over again today? 

There are only two things I would’ve liked to have done differently, that I kind of regret. Our archive director had gone to Marsha P. Johnson’s apartment, the drag queen who now has a film about her and who was one of the people who led the riots. She went to her flat and met her and talked to her and looked through her artifacts, but she did not interview her. And that was a mistake, I wish we had. The other thing was that we weren’t able to get the women who founded the Daughters Of Bilitis, but we weren’t able to get them for various reasons so Barbara Gittings is a stand-in for that. 

How do you feel Before Stonewall fits into the current political discussions we’re seeing about the regression of transgender rights in the military, the rolling back of LGBTQ rights whether through healthcare and adoption agencies? 

Well I think on the one hand, everybody – gay, straight, black, white, and grey – needs to see ‘Before Stonewall’ because what it does is it trace the idea that history is not linear. In the 40’s, gay people were able to find each other, be in same-sex communities in the cities and the military. And then the 50’s came and people were thrown out of the military, but during WWII they didn’t care! Because they needed everybody. And then by the 50s they did care. So I think the film shows that any oppressed people who won their rights – their Civil rights, their social rights and moved forward in the cultural landscape – there’s gonna be a blowback. I think we can look at when they started attacking us on the right to have children.

Up until the 80’s, women would lose their children to their ex husbands. I had friends who had multi-year, super expensive court battles to keep their kids. And the only charge against them were that they were lesbian. And then of course it was only within the last 5 or 6 years that we’ve gotten the right to adopt children legally. And that threatens the patriarchy – the fear of women, the fear of otherness. They’re gonna target our kids. Then they’re going to target the most vulnerable. Homeless youth are getting murdered and beaten up. They often become homeless because of their conservative families. They’re always going to go for the low-hanging fruit, and we who have found our place in the world and have our identity, they can’t really do anything to me now. So we need to speak out for those more vulnerable members of society in the LGBTQ community. 

‘Before Stonewall’ image

Have you ever received any negative feedback? How do you deal with that? 

The way the PBS system works, when the film was bought by PBS, they provide a national feed and then it’s up to individual stations to decide if they’re going to broadcast it. In several of the Southern states including Arkansas, Oklahoma and Florida, they didn’t want to air it. So one of the things we did was organize screenings in those states with gay groups, arts groups, and film societies. So that was the way we countered the censorship of PBS. But also, probably 10% of the letters we got said things like, “This is despicable, I am never giving money to PBS again if you’re going to show this kind of stuff.” But we also had an outpouring of letters saying, “This is amazing, this saved my life, thank you so much for airing this film” and “This film gives my life meaning”. So that was the overwhelming response to the stations that did broadcast it. 

You have sourced a lot of archival as well as modern footage. How long did it take for you to compile it all originally when you were putting the film together? 

Finding the material took two years and that was really our archival research director Andrea White who won an Emmy for her work. She was a genius. Nowadays, if you’re doing a film on gay history and you crawl the archives, the categories will include gay or lesbian life, drag queens, police raids, homophobia etc. But back then you couldn’t even find women in archives! It would be under “gardening” or “homemaking”. So Andrea did this detective determination and she also she would look for material and say, we know that in every facet of life there are going to be gay and lesbian people. So why don’t we look at the footage of women, “dancing together in WWII” for example. We cannot assume they were lesbians just because they were dancing together considering there were no men present, but we can also not just assume they were all heterosexual. So why don’t we flip that, instead of the assumption that they were always heterosexual, and look at the material in a different way. 

‘Before Stonewall’ image

The other thing was getting people in their home movies, in their personal collections to be willing to share because people in that era, there was still a lot of fear. It wasn’t like today where anyone will say anything on camera. It was really hard for people to be on camera and share their story. Especially women.

I was talking to my co-director Robert Rosenberg the other day and he said, do you remember that footage of the women dancing? One of the daughters of the woman in the footage recognized her mother and wrote a letter to PBS, saying “I don’t think my mother was a lesbian. Was she?”. 

What do you hope ‘Before Stonewall’ will speak to people who are still resistant to the LGBTQ community about?

One of the things I’m hoping is that gay and lesbian people who have issues with relatives or co-workers, will come and see this movie with them. If you see that a group of people have had a long history and have actually overcome incredible obstacles and have really resilient lives, it gives you a new perspective. I gave a speech at the Berlin Film Festival and one of the parallels I made, which was originally Walter Benjamin’s idea, was that as long as there are Jews there’s going to be anti-semitism. In tat same vein, as long as there are homosexuals, there is going to be homophobia. But we do not have a to tolerate it. It’s a mindset. And you’re not going to convince everyone, but our idea is to be strong, resilient, open, loving, and generous.

The ‘Before Stonewall’ is a First Run Features release. Filmmaking team includes:
Director: Greta Schiller
Executive Producer: John Scagliotti
Co-director: Robert Rosenberg
Archival Research Director: Andrea Weiss
Editor: Bill Daughton
Narrator: Rita Mae Brown
Produced by Robert Rosenberg, John Scagliotti and Greta Schiller for Before Stonewall, Inc.

You can find screening dates for ‘Before Stonewall’ here.

‘Before Stonewall’ filmmaking team

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