2010. USA. 82mins
Dir: Kate Davis, David Heilbroner
The Out Takes festival organisers promoted Stonewall Uprising by saying: "If you think you knew everything about the 1969 Stonewall riots, think again."
They're right, there's more to the story than most of us probably ever knew. But first, a little contextual history stuff. In 1969 gay and lesbian New Yorkers got fed up of decades of being harrased by the authorities, and the police especially, and one evening when the cops came raiding the Stonewall bar they finally rose up an fought back. It was the start of the strident gay pride movement that triggered similar fights for legal and social equality that began to circle the globe, and still does. If the fed up street vendors of Tunisia have marked the start of the 'Arab Spring' then Stonewall was the start of our 'gay spring.'
Stonewall Uprising tells the detailed story of that night and the nights that followed, interviewing people who were there, on both sides of the riot shields. Soon-to-be-mayor Ed Koch and the cop who led the raiding squad get their chance to rather apologetically explain the clashes from their historical perspectives too.
But perhaps most remarkable is the movie's examination of the social conditions which led up to the uprising. This well-crafted documentary seamlesly blends original film and video footage with skillful reconstructions to paint a picture of what it was like to be gay or lesbian or trans in 50s and 60s USA.
Frankly, it was soul-destroyingly horrible. We're shown clip after clip of a seemingly endless supply of instructional movies, force-fed to college students throughout the USA, telling them how gays and same-sex attraction were at "epidemic" proportions and threatening the fabric of society. Homosexuals were sick and were being hunted down, identified, exposed, their lives and their minds destroyed, the kids were told in stentorial voices of doom. While the screen showed every sad faggoty stereotype you can imagine.
Frankly, no wonder packs of straight youths were roaming the big city streets hunting down gays. No wonder gays withdrew into themselves, afraid of what they knew was within themselves and afraid of the outside world too.
Yet there were some who overcame the fear. In one of many wonderful interviews a lesbian describes how, after years of not understanding why she had no deep feelings for men she kissed her first woman. It was a revelation. "I'd do anything for more of those kisses," she said. So she became one of the thousands who, warned of the vices of Greenwich Village in deepest, dangerous New York, headed towards the 'danger' instead of away from it.
The big cities, like New York, were a refuge, a place where homosexuals could could find anonymity, company and somewhere to belong, even if the price was ridicule and brutality. Often they met in the only places open to them: filthy, skanky mafia-run dives, like the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village in south Manhattan. Bad as they were they fostered a sense of community and togetherness and even solidarity. "What churches were to the blacks in the South the gay bars were to us," says one gay New Yoker.
That 1969 evening at the Stonewall was the centre of a 'perfect storm' of repression, brutality, fear, loathing, abuse and malice. Something snapped and even as far away as New Zealand, our lives started to become better for what happened.
Stonewall Uprising is a magnificently crafted documentary and an absolute must see. At least for those in Wellington as, sadly, like most movies in the festival, there was only one Auckland screening and it was last night.
- Jay Bennie
[Editor's note: Despite trying to access 'screener copies' of the Out Takes Festival's movies so GayNZ.com could pre-review them before public showings they were not made available to us. So we are only able to review a sampling of the Festival's content as and when the movies hit the big screen in Auckland.] Jay Bennie - 30th May 2011