Greta Schiller: Before Stonewall

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An interview by Marci McCaulay and Robin Bartlett.

#DirectedbyWomen appreciated having the opportunity to engage in a conversation with director Greta Schiller about her 1984 award-winning documentary Before Stonewall on the occasion of its re-release, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. First Run Features will open the newly restored film June 21 in NYC and June 28 in LA. Through interviews and archival footage, the documentary reveals previously hidden lives of gays and lesbians in the US from the early 1900’s up to the riots in 1969. The director does a masterful job of weaving together stories drawn from several decades that together provide a context for understanding the Stonewall Riots.

DBW: Before Stonewall was groundbreaking in so many ways. It gave voice to previously untold stories and made known lives and experiences that up to that point had been invisible. Which personal stories did you find most inspiring?

GS: I love the story of Nancy (Bunny) McCulloch who says, “You either saw yourself as sick and mentally ill or you trusted yourself and flew with that.” That was my personal experience; instead of accepting the mainstream culture’s view, I trusted my own feelings, even at a young age. But as I chose every interviewee (with help from my creative team) I find all of them inspirational or at least interesting.

In 1969 I was 16 years old, and the impact of the Stonewall Rebellion was felt in Ann Arbor, Michigan where one of the first Gay Liberation groups existed. I was still in high school, but I was lucky to find an openly GLBT community on the university campus and I took to it like a fish to water. I immediately went out and found myself a girlfriend.

DBW: In thinking about this film, it is important for viewers to keep in mind the social and political context in the US within which gays and lesbians lived in the early eighties, when you decided to make this film. What was your vision in embarking on this project at that particular time?

GS: In 1982 when I began working as the director on Before Stonewall, I began to learn all I could about life for our community before 1969. What I found inspired me and gave me a profound sense of belonging to a people with a long and diverse history. I knew about Gertrude Stein and her circle and about lesbians in the early labor movement from second wave feminist scholarship. I was not interested in making an earnest film that focused on LGBT oppression; my vision was to make a film that had humor and pathos and featured so called “ordinary people who were survivors, who had resilience and grace in the face of adversity ,and who came from all walks of life, geographically, economically, ethnically, and in terms of age, gender and race.

You have to remember that the early 1980s was the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I lost many friends to AIDS, so surviving against adversity was something we especially could use role models for in those years.

Before Stonewall

DBW: Extensive research was clearly necessary to locate the archival material that was used for the film. What suggestions would you have for those interested in taking on a task like this today?

GS: It is so much easier to do cursory archival research today because of the internet. But people often think that is enough, not realizing that original, deep research requires visiting in person, taking a lot of time and focus and seeing what the archive actually holds. I could talk at length about archival research, because almost all my films since then have relied extensively on it. I was not interested in using archival footage simply as illustration of what was being said. I was interested in using the archival footage as an integral part of the story telling. To do that, we had to “read against the grain” because ostensibly there was no visible lesbian or gay history in the mainstream film archives. We had to interpret the material from a queer point of view and in essence put back into the archive that history that had been erased.

What I can suggest is: Read books on your topic, watch every film on the topic, then do interviews and visit archives- be sure to look “outside the box”. Our Research Director Andrea Weiss won an Emmy for her work, and she is now writing an essay for The Atlantic on the process and its impact on her life and career for those interested in learning more.

DBW: Could you give some examples of the impact that this film has had on individuals and groups? What changes have you seen in the reactions of individuals or groups to the film over the past 35 years?

GS: I never dreamt when the film was first released in 1984 how huge the impact it would have would be – and certainly never imagined that 35 years after its initial release, audiences would embrace the film as new. It has been wonderful to see contemporary audiences still loving the film. Most people even today have no idea about the history of gay and lesbian people, from isolated pockets across the country to the Stonewall Rebellion. People around the world- from Croatia, to India, to Germany and Argentina and just about anywhere I have screened the film – tell me it is required viewing for not just gays and lesbians but anyone interested in American cultural history. When it was broadcast on PBS in 1986, viewers wrote to us saying the film saved their lives. For the first time they understood they were part of a larger history. Every people needs to know where they come from and that is in essence what the film is about. The film is not only of interest to the GLBT community- and this time around a lot of mainstream press is interested which is great.

DBW: In what ways do you think that having a woman director affected the processes of filming and editing this documentary?

GS: It’s hard to imagine today, when so many women are working in the documentary genre, but when I directed Before Stonewall, there were very, very few of us. I think the film would not be at all what it is if it were directed by a man. I was determined to give equal space to women in the film, even though they were much more reticent about coming forward and speaking publicly, as they were more vulnerable and often it was a bigger risk for them. They may be compelling, but we had enough, I grew up in a multi-cultural community in the Midwest, and it was completely normal to me that the film also had to represent people of color and working class experience. At a certain point, we had plenty of white men eager to be interviewed, and I had to say it was enough – no matter how interesting they were, we had to focus on finding women and people of color and earn their trust so they would participate. As you can imagine, after living an entire life in the closet in terms of work or family, coming out on national public television was a big step for many of them.

Before Stonewall

DBW: What are examples of some of the issues that are presented in Before Stonewall that you see as still relevant today?

GS: I can’t really comment on that.

DBW: During the time period depicted in the film, gays and lesbians found and affirmed each other by word of mouth, social clubs, and through literature, magazines, and theatre. Today, gays and lesbians also have social media and dating apps to find and affirm each other. In what ways are the gay and lesbian communities of today similar to and different from those depicted in Before Stonewall? Do you think there is as much community building today as there was back then?

GS: I cannot answer this question very well- I am 64 years old, have been married for 34 years, I am a mother and a filmmaker, a sister and a daughter, an environmentalist and a professor, and in all these things I am queer. But as to how people meet and socialize today, I don’t really know; I long ago established my own social circle and supportive community. I have been learning about it somewhat through my daughter and her friends and from the amazing and delightful young lesbians who have spoken to me about the film’s re-release.

DBW: In the 20s and 30s the film suggests that the swings to the political right and left were the result of economic hard times. While the economy seems to be doing pretty well today, the same swings to the political left and right are occurring. What factors do you think are contributing to these trends? In what ways might the increased political and social power of gays and lesbians be contributing to this split?

GS: I think a part of what we are seeing from the right wing is a backlash against LGBT gains. But even well before these gains were made, there was no shortage of homophobia, as my film shows. There have always been those misogynist, homophobic, racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic elements in our society but, unfortunately, they are well organized now and are embolden by the right wing elements in local and federal government. The attacks on professional journalism and the rise of social media as a source of “news” for many people seem to be very efficient in spreading hatred and ignorance.

DBW: Although it is not named as such in your documentary, gays and lesbians who found each other and gathered in social spaces became like “family”. In what ways do you think gays and lesbians have helped broaden or redefine the notion of “family”?

GS: We redefined “family” from a biological unit into a chosen unit. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s, I lost so many friends, including the editor of Before Stonewall Bill Daughton who died before he saw the success of the film, Manfred Salzgeber who founded the queer cinema movement in Germany and brought me to the Berlinale, my first international festival, film historian Vito Russo who led us to so much film footage that was lost. We were family- we sat in hospital rooms, cleaned out apartments of the dead, loved one another while many straight people, even biological family members, abandoned us.

DBW: The definition of queer has expanded to include diverse gender identities and sexual behaviors. Do you envision the possibility of another violent protest or clash, similar to the Stonewall riots, between queer individuals and cisgender and heterosexual individuals in the near future? If so, what might be the context within which this could occur? What circumstances might precipitate such an event?

GS: I’m not qualified to anticipate that, sorry. That is up to trans activists to decide, or not. I do find some trans activists to be testosterone-driven; I learned recently that they closed down a long running women’s cultural event because that event defined woman as woman-born. That is outrageous and, to me, a long-time feminist, very male- why not let the music flow? Trans people need health care, housing, employment, and absolutely need civil rights but why go after a thriving feminist cultural institution that exists outside dominant culture? When we are young we often have not learned how to pick our battles.

DBW: As you think about the film Before Stonewall today, 35 years later, are there any voices, topics or issues that are not included or are underrepresented in the film that you think could have been included or developed further?

GS: Well, speaking of trans, we don’t have in the film what today is referred to as the trans experience, because back in the early 1980s it was not at all part of the gay and lesbian movement. There was a clear distinction then between sexuality and gender. Many trans men or women back then identified as straight, and would have been appalled to be put in the same camp as us. I’ve always loved drag queens and butch lesbians and androgyny, and so there is a lot of cross-dressing and gender-bending in the film. But the film is also a product of its time, and in the early 1980s, trans was not a political issue at all. Obviously, if I made the film 35 years later, that experience would definitely have been included.

DBW: Thank you for your work and thank you for taking the time to respond to these questions.

Before Stonewall is a First Run Features release. Newly restored for the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots! Director: Greta Schiller.  Co-Director: Robert Rosenberg.  Executive Producer: John Scagliotti.  Research Director: Andrea Weiss   Editor: Bill Daughton.  Narrated by Rita Mae Brown.

June 21, 2019 – NYC: Quad Cinema
June 28, 2019 – LA: Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts

Visit the First Run Features website to find additional screenings.

Photos courtesy of First Run Features.


Greta Schiller

Greta Schiller
Greta Schiller
[Courtesy of Jezebel Productions]

Greta Schiller is an internationally acclaimed documentary director whose career was launched in 1984 with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded feature documentary, Before Stonewall, which premiered in the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, had an extensive festival and cinema release around the world, and won her both an Emmy Award and an Emmy Nomination for Best Director. Since then Greta Schiller has been producing award-winning documentaries through her nonprofit production company, Jezebel Productions, which she founded with Andrea Weiss. She was the first ever recipient of the UK/US Fulbright Arts Fellowship in Film, which took her to London. She ended up staying there for 12 years, producing a series of award- winning international co-productions including International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Tiny & Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women, The Man Who Drove with Mandela and Escape to Life.

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