The streets of Greenwich Village exploded with pent up anger in June, 1969 when police raided a gay bar – the Stonewall Inn; the event and the subsequent riots are generally considered to have launched the gay rights movement. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a newly restored version of the documentary Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community is being released across the country this June, in time for Pride Month.
Through historical photos and footage and interviews, Before Stonewall depicts homosexual life in the decades when many gay men and lesbians lived in the closet. Originally released in 1984, the award winning film launched the career of director Greta Schiller.
Senior Planet spoke with Schiller, 64, in New York City, where she lives with her wife Andrea Weiss, 62, the film’s archival research director.
Senior Planet: What was your goal when you first made this film? Has that changed as it’s being re-released and a whole new audience will see it?
Greta Schiller: My goal was telling a story from the point of view of participants, using oral history. I wanted to research from the turn of the century to the start of the modern day gay rights movement. I was weaving gay and lesbian history into America history, people who had been erased. The film feels contemporary because the history is still relevant.
Senior Planet: What was it like to do this research in an era before the internet? You were researching a period where gays and lesbians got little media coverage. How did you find sources? photos? footage? I loved the interviews with the WW 2 veterans.
Greta Schiller: When Andrea approached the research, she started to look for information with a different eye, going through the margins. She’d look up police raids, drag bars, village street life. After we put ads in gay newspapers seeking interview subjects, we went to their houses. We started to see their private collections of home movies and scrapbooks as artifacts. Then we had to convince them their personal photos were history. The gay film historian, Vito Russo, was incredibly helpful in directing us to lost gays films.
Senior Planet: Why do you think everyone, especially the younger LGBTQ generation, should see this film?
Greta Schiller: Everyone should see Before Stonewall because it’s a really good movie. People enjoy it. I could have made an earnest film about an oppressed people, but I’m interested in survivors, people who are resilient. The film is Gay History 101. I was always interested in history. It’s not just white men doing important things.
Senior Planet: How do you think things have changed for the LGBTQ community since you made this film?
Greta Schiller: Back when I was young, who wanted to get married? Yet in 30 years, the country has gone to supporting same sex marriage and people having lots of gay friends.
Senior Planet: What does the older LGBTQ generation have to give to the younger ones?
Greta Schiller: The idea that things take time. We live in a culture of instant gratification. But the best things in life often come from perseverance, hard work, commitment.
Senior Planet: And what can senior gays learn from the youth?
Greta Schiller: The confidence of young LGBTQ people who have come into their identity in a contemporary era. They are fearless and have no compunction about being themselves. They talk about who they love and they’d never think of hiding in a job situation.
Senior Planet: What projects are you working on now?
Greta Schiller: I’m in post production on a film I’ve been shooting for three years in Spain. “Bells of Azaba” is about a major ecological restoration site. I’m in the early stages of “The Great Experiment” about how Black and Puerto Rican students took over the City College of New York in Harlem demanding more people of color be admitted. (Schiller is an adjunct faculty member at City College teaching Documentary Film Making.)
Senior Planet: What does aging with attitude mean to you?
Greta Schiller: It means maintaining my sense of humor and my joie de vivre, being who I am, keeping open to new ideas and what life brings me. But I don’t mind if people offer to lift things for me. I’m a senior and proud of it. Now I am the age of the people in the film in 1984 and they seemed so old and wise.
Photo: Before Stonewall Director/Producer Greta Schiller today, photographer David Behl