Powerful ‘Upstairs Inferno’ returns for Atlanta screening

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It’s a dark moment in LGBT history, yet it's still a bit of an unknown story: The intentionally-set fire that ravaged a New Orleans gay bar in 1973, killing 32 people. But a documentary about the tragedy from gay director Robert Camina returns to Atlanta for a screening. 

“Upstairs Inferno” tells the story of the fire on June 24, 1973 that decimated Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It's the largest gay mass murder in U.S. history, yet it's a story that isn't well known. Camina (photo) worked to change that with the documentary about the unsolved fire, a film that proved to be a popular draw during gay Atlanta's Out on Film last year.

And thanks to Out on Film and Atlanta Pride, Camina's film screens again on Wednesday as a Stonewall Month event. Project Q Atlanta caught up with Camina recently to talk about how he got involved in the project, the challenges he faced and how he landed gay author Christopher Rice to narrate the film.

How did this project come about? 

I have a passion for storytelling. The story taps you on the shoulder, and that is what you are called to do. “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge” – (his 2012 film about the 2009 raid of a Forth Worth, Texas gay bar) – tapped me and then this. I felt I was in the right position to tell those stories. I thought I knew my LGBT history. After “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge,” a producer asked me if I had ever heard about the fire. I was shocked that I had never heard of it. I feel the historical significance is on a par with Stonewall and Harvey Milk, other bench marks of LGBT history, but it’s not part of our common narrative. I thought that needed to change and that we needed to tell the story, nationally and internationally before any more people pass on. It’s a crucial chapter of history that needs to be told by those who experienced it.

When did you start this? 

We started pre-production in late 2013 and then filming in New Orleans in 2014. I started recording the memorials and the relationships. Interviews started shortly after.

Was it difficult to get people to open up about the fire?

It was a challenge, because it is such a sensitive issue. Once we located people – survivors or friends of families of those that died – I couldn’t just say, “Hello, I am doing a documentary about this incredibly devastating moment in your life.” It was about building relationships and trust. I didn’t want anyone to feel I was exploiting them or their family members. When we finally set out to do the interviews, there was a trust. I felt they felt more free to speak. It wasn’t easy but it was cathartic. I didn’t get everyone I wanted, but I am grateful for this who did trust us with their stories.

Why don't more people know about this tragedy?

That question is asked a lot. When I interview people, I ask them. There are different theories. One is that it is so painful, they did not want to talk about. It wasn’t a Stonewall moment; there wasn’t a riot. There was a huge wave of activism after but it petered out. And there might be some shame and embarrassment. The primary suspect is a member of the LGBT community. The fire could have been started by one of our own.

There are many theories, but people are coming to the realization of their mortality, that if they die, memories of their friends who died in the fire die with them. They want to treat their friends better than that, so they are opening up.

How did you get Christopher Rice aboard?

That was great. He was so enthusiastic and supportive of the film. When I was thinking of narrators, I wanted someone who was emotionally connected. Because he basically grew up in New Orleans, he considered it his home town. New Orleans influences his writing and his mother’s writing. Being part of the LGBT community, I thought he was a perfect fit. I reached out and asked if he was interested and he was immediately on board.

You have a crazy busy June.

I have a screening of the film in San Diego, then we screen this here again in Atlanta. We are screening on the 43rd anniversary of the fire in New Orleans. The week before is their Pride and they have named me grand marshal of the parade. And then the biggie – we are screening at Frameline – (the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival) – on the eve of the fire.

What’s next?

I have a few ideas in my file cabinet and I want to make sure I am choosing the right one. But I am taking a bit of a break before. I have been working nonstop since 2009. I have promised myself and my family I will take a break. Not retirement. I say it’s my Cher/Celine Deon retirement. A quick break before telling the next story.

Jim Farmer is executive director of Out on Film. “Upstairs Inferno” screens Wednesday, June 8 at 7 p.m. at the Rush Center Annex. 

[photo courtesy Larry Graham Photography)

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