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Arson attack against gay bar — 32 dead

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Upstairs Inferno is a documentary that tells the story of the 1973 arson attack on the Up Stairs Lounge — a gay bar in New Orleans. Thirty-two people were killed in the attack.

I caught up with filmmaker Robert Camina for a behind-the-scenes look at the documentary.

When did you first become aware of the story of the Up Stairs fire?

My previous documentary was called Raid of the Rainbow Lounge. It centred around a widely publicised, violent, and controversial 2009 police raid of a Fort Worth, Texas gay bar that resulted in multiple arrests and serious injuries. It happened on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and the parallels were haunting. I had friends who were at the bar that night, so I followed the story from the very beginning.

Following sordid allegations and outrage, many changes occurred in the city and Fort Worth became a leader in LGBTQ equality. However, the changes didn’t happen overnight and weren’t without controversy. That film documents that journey from the perspective of witnesses, activists, and politicians who helped changed the city.

We screened the film in multiple film festivals across the United States, Canada, and Mexico, sparking meaningful conversations and turning an unfortunate event into far-reaching, teachable opportunities. By partnering with government officials, schools, and grassroots organisations across the US, Raid of the Rainbow Lounge helped change hearts and minds. It showed that the lessons learned in Fort Worth are lessons for cities all across the country and the world, not just in Texas.

In late 2012, someone who had seen the film and admired our activism contacted me out of the blue. He thought we told the story of the Rainbow Lounge raid in a balanced, respectful manner. He went on to ask if I knew about the Up Stairs Lounge arson, and I hadn’t! I was stunned. I thought I knew my gay history. Given the success of Raid of the Rainbow Lounge, he thought we should be the ones to share this vital story with the world.

What drew you to make a film to tell this story?

After learning about the fire, I asked myself the question — Why isn’t this story more prevalent in our culture? It’s offensive that more people don’t know about it. 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.

I didn’t want to create a stagnant documentary, with only an exposition of facts. Through very honest and intimate interviews, I wanted to humanise the story and show the real impact the fire had on the victims’ friends, families, and the LGBT movement. It’s easy to trivialise a situation when you gloss over a headline in a newspaper or a Facebook post. There’s something about seeing and hearing the story from those who experienced an event, that truly makes it ‘real.’ That’s what possesses the potential to create change.

The more I learned about the fire, the more important this project became. I wanted to educate audiences about this little known event, and honour the victims and people affected by the deadly fire. The victims are more than statistics, more then names in a newspaper clipping, or even names on a plaque. These were unfinished lives, tragically cut short by a senseless act. The victims and their families and friends left to cope with the aftermath, deserved better treatment than what they got. I thought, if I have an opportunity to provide any sort of legacy or light for them, I wanted to try.

What was the process that you followed?

When production began on Upstairs Inferno, nearly 40 years had passed since the fire. Many of the survivors had passed away. However, with the help of the internet and Facebook, I was able to locate quite a few people who were either survivors, friends, or family members of the victims or witnesses.

It was my intent to honour the victims and survivors with this film. So once I located these people, I introduced myself and made sure that they knew I wasn’t looking to exploit them. I spent time building relationships and trust. Asking people to resurrect 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.

With solid friendships in place, when it came time for the interviews, we’d already broken the ice and they knew who I was. We were able to have conversations on camera, rather than interrogations. I think that comes across in the film and it makes their stories much more powerful.

The research process definitely had its own challenges, because I researched this story from scratch. My technique is to start with original source documents. I don’t rely on anyone else’s interpretation. Documents, precious photographs, and contact information of victims’ friends and families have been lost with the passage of time. Add in Hurricane Katrina and even more pieces of the puzzle were lost or destroyed. However, my faith and determination uncovered many elements of the story that were once thought to be lost.

The internet was very helpful in the research process, but nothing replaces stepping into a library and flipping through newspapers, scrolling through microfilm, or thumbing through photographs. I made several trips to multiple libraries in New Orleans. I even travelled to the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles and the New York Public Library to sift through their collection of documents about the Up Stairs Lounge fire.

It was a treasure hunt at times, but ‘new’ discoveries made it exciting. There was a time when I was sorting through files in New Orleans and came across a charred swatch of red flocked wallpaper that was from the Up Stairs Lounge. That was a huge find! Another ‘new’ discovery was the colour news footage of the fire. I spent countless hours searching news broadcast archives, hoping to find some long-lost news coverage. I hit dead-end after dead-end. Then, one day, while on a random news aggregator website, I typed a set of keywords into the search bar. The result was a description of a video file that sounded a lot like the Up Stairs Lounge fire. I ordered a preview screener, and to my surprise, it was colour footage from the fire that hadn’t been seen in decades.

Were there any key figures in the story that you wanted to interview but couldn’t get access to?

Thirty people were gracious enough to grant me interviews and trust me with their memories. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, not all 30 are included in the film. That being said, there were still key figures that declined to participate. The tragedy was too painful to talk about. That included Buddy Rasmussen, the bar manager who led so many people to safety. While I was disappointed, I absolutely respected his decision. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like for him. He lost his partner and so many friends in that fire.

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One aspect of the story that I was a little confused by was that it seemed at first that it was the Metropolitan Community Church that had been targeted by the arsonist, because they had been the target of two earlier arson attacks. However, it seems to be accepted that the arsonist was most likely a disgruntled patron of the bar, so there wasn’t actually any malice directed specifically at the MCC. Is that an accurate reading of the story?

There are several fallacies about the Up Stairs Lounge fire that are often repeated as fact on the Internet. We conducted a lot of research while making Upstairs Inferno to ensure we weren’t perpetuating any mis-truths. One of the myths centres around the relationship between the Up Stairs Lounge and the Metropolitan Community Church at the time for the fire.

It’s often reported that the New Orleans chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church was holding worship service at the Up Stairs Lounge at the time of the arson attack. While the Metropolitan Community Church temporarily held worship services in the theatre at the Up Stairs Lounge shortly after its formation, by 1973, the congregation had already moved to a permanent location in the New Orleans Garden District. However, many of the congregants still attended the Beer Bust at the Up Stairs Lounge after church. This is why one-third of the congregation was killed in the fire, including two clergy. There’s no evidence to support that the Up Stairs Lounge arson was an attack on the Metropolitan Community Church. Regardless, the New Orleans fire was one of four arson attacks to directly impact MCC congregants around the country within a seven month period.

As the film unfolded, I was struck by the similarity of the Upstairs arson attack and the attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando. At first what seems like an external attack on the LGBTQ community, turns out to some form of internalised homophobia erupting as violence — an attack from within. It makes all the grief and anger harder to process somehow. Is that something you were tempted to explore?

That’s a tricky question. It centres around the leading theory about the identity of the arsonist. From the beginning, there were rumours that the fire had been started by a disgruntled customer, but to this day, we don’t know with absolute certainty who started it or their motive. All the evidence points to Rodger Dale Nunez, but if he did start the fire, we’ll never know his true motive and if internalised homophobia was indeed a factor.

That being said, when I sat down with survivors, I asked them if it mattered if the fire was started by a member of the LGBTQ community. Their reactions were pretty straightforward — “I don’t look at it as a gay on gay type of crime. It was just one of those bad things that happened out of anger…” said Ricky Everett. “Someone was angry and full of hate and he took it out on everybody…” added Francis Dufrene.

The sexuality of the suspect didn’t make a difference in the way they processed their grief and anger. The end result was the same — 32 victims, countless injured, and lives torn apart. Yet through it all, the survivors somehow found forgiveness for the arsonist. I felt that exploring the element of forgiveness in the shadow of tremendous loss and heartbreak would contribute to a much more powerful narrative.

One of the really powerful elements of the film, was the way that it demonstrated the positive impact that anti-discrimination legislation has had over the years. Because people couldn’t be open about their sexuality at work, the day after the fire people had to go to work and pretend that the fire and the death of friends had no emotional impact on them. Was that shift over time something that you were keen to illustrate?

That wasn’t a theme that I consciously pursued, however, the years of hindsight flushed out the theme organically. This is one aspect of the film that subtly showcases how far we’ve come in the fight for LGBTQ equality in the 45 years since the fire.

Why is the Up Stairs fire an important part of our LGBTQ history?

I believe that it’s crucial to acknowledge, preserve and honour our history as LGBTQ people, no matter where you live. The LGBTQ dialogue has changed so much in the past few years. As popular attitudes shift around the world on LGBTQ issues, we risk losing the stories of the struggles that got us where we are today.

It’s our responsibility to honour 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 LGBTQ community of today, as well as the overall LGBTQ movement.

What do you hope that people feel when watching this film?

While Upstairs Inferno recounts a historic event that occurred in the US, its underlying message crosses cultural boundaries. It’s easier for people to hate and fear things they don’t understand. No matter your background or how you identify, in the end, we’re more alike than we are different. I think Upstairs Inferno reminds of us that.

We made the film hoping audiences would walk away from it 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.

Sadly, a lot has happened in the world since the film premiered, and we began spreading the message of compassion and the impact of hate. It sickens me that mass murders have become so common. I think Upstairs Inferno’s message is as timely as ever — the power of family, friends, and forgiveness in the shadow of immense pain. Hopefully, by the Up Stairs Lounge Arson survivors sharing their stories, it can provide strength to others in need.

This year, as we observe the 45th Anniversary of the deadly arson, I’m grateful that Upstairs Inferno is now accessible to audiences around the world — the victims, their loved ones, and their stories should never be forgotten again.

Upstairs Inferno is now available to stream through Amazon Prime Video

Viewers worldwide can stream Upstairs Inferno through Vimeo-On-Demand or the film can be purchased through Upstairs Inferno website.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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Artists

“In a fictional universe I would wield magic”

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Artwork by Stefano Junior (image supplied)
Artwork by Stefano Junior (image supplied)

I caught up with artist Stefano Junior to talk art, illustration, and super-powers.

When did you start to explore your passion for illustration and art?

I’ve been drawing as far back as I can remember. According to my parents, I drew a very convincing female figure from my imagination at about three or four years old. From then on, when I wasn’t at school, watching cartoons, or voraciously reading comic books, I’d be drawing. My parents eventually enrolled me in a fine arts weekend program at a local college — I studied there for several years while going through grammar and middle school.

What is it about superheroes that appeals to you?

In hindsight, apart from the obvious colourful allure of superhero adventures, it was the transformative nature that is the basis of most superhero narratives. As a child, in suburban 80s America, with my penchant for the arts, girls toys, and a foreign name, I was bullied extensively — superheroes provided a means to escape, I could imagine that I might one day extricate myself from that oppression.

Books like Chris Claremont’s X-Men, which were ripe with soap-opera-like drama, reassured me that my ‘latent’ powers weren’t things to be ashamed of. Roger Stern’s run on Superman affirmed my beliefs that though people could be cruel and misguided, it didn’t mean that I should have to sacrifice my ethics and sense of what’s right. George Pérez’s Wonder Woman — that she was an immigrant appealed to me as a first-generation Italian, and she never lost her compassion for even her greatest foes.

Growing up with older sisters and a strong Italian matriarch may have influenced me gravitating to female heroes. But there was also the allure of the outrageous 80s feminine glamour of heroes like She-Ra, or the many fantastic mutant women of the X-universe who all played such pivotal roles in the series while donning fantastic costumes created by amazing artists like Paul Smith, Arthur Adams, and Marc Silvestri.

I love your drawings of Sorceror Stefano — is that an alter ego?

I’ve been developing an illustrated version of myself over the years. I’m currently studying cartooning at the School of Visual Arts — comic legend Phil Jimenez was one of my instructors my sophomore year. Our mid-term assignment was to create a fictionalised life drawing of ourselves in a turnaround. So I photographed myself, and further developed the design of my Sorcerer self. As an artist, the process of creation feels like sorcery, so were I to exist in a fictional universe, I would definitely wield magic. I’d also like to be physically invulnerable.

Who are some of your art heroes or inspirations?

My inspirations are pretty vast. From the art world it includes Bernini, Gabriel Rosetti, and Waterhouse. From comics it includes Esteban Maroto, Garcia Lopez, Marc Silvestri, Brian Bolland, George Perez, Phil Jimenez, Adam Hughes, Colleen Doran, Art Adams, and especially Alan Davis — both for the aesthetic beauty and elegance of his art, and as a draughtsman and storyteller.

If you could do a life drawing of a male super-hero, who would you choose?

Henry Cavill as Superman.

Your moustache game is pretty strong — what does your moustache say about you?

At its most base, it’s a homage to the machismo of the 1980s — particularly my hero, Tom Selleck as Magnum PI. He’s the epitome of masculine idealisation.

I grow it and shave it constantly — it’s spawned its own cartoon of my creation. You can follow the exploits of me and my moustache — Mr. Mustardo — on Instagram. It’s absolutely vain, but it allows for me to be humorous in a single panel cartoon form that deviates from the more representative work and superhero storytelling that I’ve primarily been focused on.

What are some of your goals and ambitions for the months ahead?

I hope to further develop an original comic that I started in the Fall, that centres around a complex heroine and a magical discovery. Plus there’s some newer humorous cartoons that Id like to serialise online somehow — one that follows the exploits of a majordomo in an early 20th century hotel, another that follows a boy through multiple mediums and circumstances that end badly.

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