by Elizabeth Stoddard
On a Sunday night in June 1973, an arsonist started a fire in the stairwell below The Up Stairs Lounge. The New Orleans club, which opened in 1970, catered to a gay clientele at a time when many remained closeted to co-workers, family and friends. Along with the usual bar crowd, The Up Stairs Lounge hosted theatre performances and even church services. The summer 1973 blaze killed 32 people, yet sparked no real national outcry or even much response from local leaders due to the homophobia of the time.
Filmmaker Robert L. Camina, who previously explored the story of a 2009 raid of a Ft. Worth gay club in Raid of the Rainbow Lounge, made Upstairs Inferno about this almost-forgotten tragedy. His recent documentary compiles interviews with survivors of the fire, authors who have written about the historic event and others involved (including Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the non-denominational Metropolitan Community Church). Upstairs Inferno has been making the festival rounds and will have its Texas Premiere at Austin Film Festival this weekend.
I asked director Camina a few questions about his movie before Upstairs Inferno screens at AFF:
What drew you to this story? How did you first hear about this traumatic event in New Orleans history?
First of all, I thought I knew my Gay History. Around three years ago, when somebody told me about this tragedy, I was shocked!! 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. Furthermore, I believe this story reaches far beyond the LGBT community. It’s still the deadliest fire in New Orleans history and the lessons learned in the aftermath of the tragedy should appeal to the humanity of the masses.
I didn’t want to create a stagnant documentary, with only an exposition of facts. Through very honest and intimate interviews, I also wanted to humanize the story and show the real impact the fire had on the victims’ friends, families and the LGBT movement. It’s easy to trivialize a situation when you gloss over a headline in a newspaper (or a Facebook post). There is 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.
Did you have difficulty finding survivors to speak on camera?
Tracking down survivors wasn’t easy. It’s been more than forty years since the fire and many have passed away. It took time, patience and scores of phone calls and emails to find survivors. But once I found survivors or family members of victims, I wanted to make sure they knew I wasn’t out to exploit what happened to them, their friends or family members. Even then, some people were still in a lot of pain and didn’t want to talk about the fire on camera. That includes the bar manager who led so many people to safety. It’s disappointing, but I can’t begin to imagine what the experience was/is like for him. He lost his partner and so many friends in that fire.
How long were you working on this film?
We worked on this film for over 2.5 years.