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An Interview with Robert Camina
by Frank Perez
"Upstairs Inferno", a documentary film about the Up Stairs Lounge arson that killed 32 people in 1973 in a gay bar in the French Quarter, will have its world premiere on June 24 at the Prytania Theatre in New Orleans. I recently had an opportunity to interview filmmaker Robert Camina about the documentary. (Photo by Larry Graham)
FP: How did you get interested in the Up Stairs Lounge fire?
RC: First of all, I thought I knew my Gay History. When somebody told me about this tragedy around three years ago, 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.
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.
The more I learned about the fire, the more important this project became. I believe it is crucial to acknowledge, preserve and honor our history as LGBT people. The LGBT dialogue has changed SO much in the past few years. As popular attitudes shift on LGBT issues, we risk losing the stories of the struggles that got us where we are today. It’s our responsibility to honor 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 LGBT community of today, as well as the overall LGBT movement. I wanted to create a film that honored their forgotten stories.
FP: What was the most challenging aspect of making this film?
RC: Just one??? Ha! I encountered a lot of challenges while trying to tell a story that is more than 40 years old. I researched this story from scratch. My technique is to start with original source documents. I don’t rely on anyone else’s interpretations. With the passage of time, documents, precious photographs and contact information of victims’ friends and families, have been lost. 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. That being said, let me be clear: the hunt was very challenging. While I experienced many other challenges during production, including the horrific task of fundraising, the most challenging aspect of making UPSTAIRS INFERNO was accepting the realization that I was not going to find some of the material or people I was looking for. When you start a project with a specific vision, and you exhaust every avenue to achieve it, it’s a challenge to come to peace with the realization that you won’t be able to fulfill your vision 100%.
FP: Christopher Rice narrates the film. What was it like working with Rice?
RC: I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with! He was eager to help tell this story and was very patient with the demanding schedule. Chris considers New Orleans his "hometown" and is very passionate about keeping its history alive! As a New York Times best-selling author, much of his writing is heavily influenced by the years he and his mom (legendary vampire chronicler, Anne Rice) lived in New Orleans.
FP: Was most of your research conducted in New Orleans? Where else?
RC: I performed a lot of my research in New Orleans. I took many trips to the Crescent City over the course of production. The Internet was very helpful, but sometimes, nothing replaces stepping into a library and flipping through newspapers, scrolling through microfilm, or thumbing through photographs. I also made several trips to the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles. I even traveled to the New York Public Library to sift through their collection of documents about the Up Stairs Lounge fire.
FP: How has the gay community in New Orleans responded to your project?
RC: During my first trip to New Orleans after we started production, I have to admit, I felt a little bit like an outsider. I didn’t know many people there. I knew New Orleans was a very close-knit community and I was "this filmmaker guy" from Dallas, looking to tell a very intimate and sensitive story about their beloved city. However, almost immediately, I was welcomed into the community and introduced to people that could help me tell the story effectively. Over the years, I have made many friends in New Orleans and I consider it my second home. I didn’t realize that the love was mutual until last month’s visit, when I was in town conducting some last minute research and hosting a fundraiser. When Regina Adams (who graciously opened up her home and heart to us last year for an interview about the fire and the loss of her lover, Reggie), stood on stage during the fundraiser and said she thought of me "as her son", it was all I could do to choke back the tears. That was immediately followed by Opal Masters praising my efforts and calling me a "hero". I wasn’t prepared to get so emotional. The love was overwhelming.
FP: You’ve said you feel an emotional connection to the Up Stairs Lounge story. Elaborate on that.
RC: Over the years, I’ve gotten to "know" the victims of the fire. Even though I never actually knew them, I feel very close to them and I grieve for them in the same way I would if one of my current friends passed away suddenly.
As a storyteller, I have to remain objective and keep my emotions in check. However, I would be lying if I said there weren’t times that the sheer magnitude of the tragedy hasn’t gotten to me. One time in particular, a family member of one of the victims mailed me an original portrait of their loved one. As I held this 40+ year old photo in my hands and looked into his eyes, I broke down in tears. Physically touching the heirloom made this story extremely personal.
I’ve gotten to know the families of many of the victims and I now consider them part of my extended family. I’ve also grown very close to many of the survivors. The people I have met along the way, especially the survivors, have touched my life immeasurably and I am honored to call them my friends. I’ve come a long way from feeling like an "outsider" like I did during my first trip to New Orleans.
FP: How many people did you interview?
RC: 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 on the film. (Hint: DVDS extras)
FP: What can viewers expect to see and what do you want them to take away from the film?
RC: Audiences should expect to see a balance between investigative reporting and very intimate profiles of people lost or affected by the tragedy. The victims are more than statistics, more than 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 to do that.
This is a gruesome story, there is no way around it. But I hope through it all, people walk away with a renewed call for compassion: Compassion for those unlike us. Compassion for those who are hurting. Compassion for those in need. Because they’re definitely wasn’t a lot of compassion when this tragedy happened. In addition, I hope the film acts as a stark reminder that we need to seize the day. We need to make sure we tell our loved ones every day that we love them, because we don’t know what lies ahead. Life is fickle and unpredictable. Today may be our last chance.
"Upstairs Inferno" will have its World Premiere at the Prytania Theater on June 24th, the 42nd anniversary of the fire. More information about the film and director Robert L. Camina, can be found at www.UpstairsInferno.com.
World Premeire of Emotional New Documentary, Upstairs Inferno June 24 @ Prytania TheaterCamina Entertainment, Inc. is thrilled to announce the World Premiere of the eagerly awaited documentary, Upstairs Inferno, a full length film about the largest gay mass murder in U.S. history. The 95 minute film is written and directed by Robert L. Camina. The World Premiere will be held in New Orleans on the anniversary of the fire, June 24, 2015 at 7:30pm at the historic Prytania Theater, located in the Garden District (5339 Prytania St.). Only street parking is available, so guests are advised to allow plenty of time for parking. A Q&A featuring writer/director Robert L. Camina and many special guests will follow the screening. Tickets for the World Premiere are NOW on sale at www.UpstairsInferno.com.
Camina is also proud to announce that New Orleans’ own New York Times best-selling author, Christopher Rice will narrate the emotionally charged film!
On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar located on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. The result was the largest gay mass murder in U.S. history. Despite the staggering historical significance, few people know about the tragedy. Thirty-two people were killed and some bodies were never identified. One-third of the New Orleans chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church were killed in the blaze, including two clergy. No one was ever charged with the crime. The tragedy did not stop at the loss of lives. There were also the delayed injuries: lost jobs, fear, public ridicule and severed families. The devastation was compounded by the homophobic reactions and utter lack of concern by the general public, government and religious leaders. The fire permanently altered lives and was the root of many lifelong struggles.
Upstairs Inferno is poised to be the most comprehensive and authoritative film about the fire and its aftermath. However, Upstairs Inferno isn’t simply a stagnant exposition of facts. Upstairs Inferno brings humanity to the headlines by shining a light on the very painful effect the tragedy had on survivors, witnesses and loved ones. Their interviews have been gut wrenching, yet insightful. Some of the people interviewed in the film haven’t publicly discussed the fire until now, especially on camera. Many granted the production exclusive on-camera interviews. Featuring over 20 powerful interviews, it’s specifically noteworthy to mention that the film includes a rare, heartbreaking interview of a survivor who lost her lover, Reggie Adams in the blaze. As part of her long healing process, she legally changed her name to “Regina Adams” in honor of her “one true love”. In addition, the film includes Ricky Everett and Francis Dufrene (two survivors who barely escaped the inferno), a son of one of the victims, Reverend Elder Troy Perry (Founder of the Metropolitan Community Church), Johnny Townsend (Author, “Let the Faggots Burn”), Clayton-Delery Edwards (Author, “The Up Stairs Arson”), Clancy DuBos and Ronnie LeBouef (Two former employees of the Times-Picayune newspaper) and many more.
Upstairs Inferno is different than any other project the public has ever seen about the fire! Upstairs Inferno reveals facts audiences have never heard and it uncovers long lost artifacts, interviews and archival footage few people have ever seen.
Learn more about the film at www.UpstairsInferno.com.
The official trailer is available at https://vimeo.com/94900386 and www.UpstairsInferno.com.
Christopher Rice (narrator) is a New York Times best selling author. His debut, “A Density of Souls”, was an overnight best seller, and was greeted with a landslide of media attention, much of it due to the fact that Christopher is the son of legendary vampire chronicler, Anne Rice. Much of his writing is heavily influenced by the years he and his Mom lived in New Orleans. Rice considers New Orleans his “hometown”. Christopher currently co-hosts his own Internet radio show, The Dinner Party Show, with fellow New York Times best selling novelist, Eric Shaw Quinn. Rice recently published the novel, “The Vines”, which is set in the outskirts of New Orleans. Christopher Rice also wrote the adapted screenplay for Anne Rice’s novel, “The Tale of the Body Thief”, which was acquired by Universal Pictures in November 2014, according to Variety Magazine.
Robert L. Camina (director) wrote, directed and produced several short films before premiering his first full length documentary, Raid of the Rainbow Lounge (2012) to sold out audiences, rave reviews and a media frenzy. Raid of the Rainbow Lounge recounts the widely publicized and controversial June 28, 2009 police raid of a Fort Worth, Texas gay bar that resulted in multiple arrests and serious injuries. The raid occurred on the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Inn raid. The film, narrated by TV icon Meredith Baxter, screened during 33 mainstream and LGBT film festivals across the United States, Mexico and Canada. The film won several awards including 5 “Best” Film and 3 “Audience Choice” Awards. The film also received attention from the Office of the White House, Department of Justice and a division of the U.S. State Department. At their invitation, the Library of Congress hosted a screening in September 2014. (www.RaidoftheRainbowLounge
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