‘Raid of the Rainbow Lounge’ documentarian Robert L. Camina tracks the forgotten history of a hate crime
SCOTT HUFFMAN | Contributing Writer
Robert L. Camina has earned a reputation as much for being an activist as for being a filmmaker. Camina had already made several narrative shorts and features when, in 2009, he began documenting the Fort Worth Police Department’s controversial conduct at a Cowtown gay bar on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The result was the award-winning 2012 documentary Raid of the Rainbow Lounge. But the out indie filmmaker still considers himself “a storyteller first and foremost.”
While he never set out along a career in pursuit of compelling, historical LGBT events, that’s where he has been headed. The stories, it would seem, found him.
“What inspires me are stories of the human condition that haven’t been told before,” Camina, 42, explains. “I like stories that grab my attention or touch my heart and can resonate. When that story taps you on the shoulder, that’s what you have to go after.”
Upstairs Inferno, Camina’s second LGBT-themed documentary, is the heart-wrenching story of a 1973 arson at the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The horrifying blaze claimed the lives of 32 people. But because most of the victims were gay, local government officials and religious leaders refused to address — or even publicly acknowledge — the tragedy. (The doc will receive its official Dallas premiere Thursday at the Magnolia Theater.)
The chilling facts of this largely untold atrocity immediately grabbed Camina’s attention.
“What I hoped to achieve was to bring light to this story,” Camina says. “It is one of the benchmark moments in LGBT history, but it’s not part of our popular narrative. It’s a hidden story, and it’s been hidden for over 40 years. Many consider it the largest gay mass murder in history.”
Though the tragic event had been the subject of several written historical accounts, Camina was not satisfied with the way in which the facts had been preserved. The texts lacked emotion; they failed properly to humanize the event. He resolved to remedy this injustice by painstakingly chronicling the event with news photos and interviews with witnesses and survivors.
“When it was written about, it was written in a cold, stoic, factual way,” Camina says. “I wanted to breathe life into these people. These were human beings first. They were more than names on a plaque, more than names in a newspaper. I wanted people to understand the magnitude of the loss. My goal was to honor the people whose lives were cut short by this horrific crime and those who were left behind.”
Camina felt a sense of urgency in capturing eyewitness accounts of this tragedy. Not only did he desire to preserve all available first-hand testimony, but he also wanted to offer a platform from which the survivors could at long last freely speak. Survivors were given an opportunity to share publicly their long-withheld and emotionally-charged recollections.
“Let’s face it, fewer and fewer people are around to tell the story,” Camina says. “And once survivors and those who were touched by the fire pass away, the memories of those who passed away in the fire are gone, too. Most of them were ready to talk immediately. Some were a little more hesitant because it is painful to talk about it. But in the end, they spoke to me, and they said it was cathartic.”
Camina’s first interview was with Metropolitan Community Church founder the Rev. Troy Perry. Because the New Orleans MCC had temporarily used the Up Stairs Lounge as a meeting place, many, including Perry, originally feared that the fire was connected to church arsons in other cities. Perry was one of the first clergymen to arrive and to offer community support. The reverend’s gripping interview lasted four hours.
“His emotions were so raw and so honest that I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house when we finished that interview,” Camina recalls. “We just had lumps in our throats. It was just the most powerful way we could start off production.”
One jarring, if not grisly, aspect of the film is Camina’s use of graphic photographs. A particularly gruesome image is that of the charred body of William Larson, pastor of the New Orleans MCC and a bar patron who burned to death while attempting to escape the fire through a barred second-story window. The disturbing image is one Camina feels is iconic to this forgotten history.
“Part of the reasoning for putting in those realistic images is to show just how insane it was that the mayor, the governor and religious leaders turned their backs to this community,” Camina explains. “It’s one thing to hear there were badly burned people or to hear that flames were swelling. But to see it puts you in the moment and infuriates you even more.”
Camina acknowledges that LGBT communities are the film’s primary target audience. Yet he also knows the documentary offers compelling insight into the human condition and therefore has strong crossover appeal. He has not limited screening of the film only to gay film festivals. In fact, the film’s Texas debut was at the recent mainstream Austin Film Festival; the Austin American-Statesman named it one of the festival’s 10 best films.
“I had a poster [at the AFF] for people to sign with their thoughts as a commemorative item for me to take away,” Camina says. “Someone wrote, ‘Changed my view towards the LGBT community. Thank you for making this film.’ So, that’s why we do what we do — [to change] one heart, one mind at a time.”
Despite his recent success, Camina longs to return to his lighter-hearted filmmaking roots. In stark contrast to the dark nature of Camina’s two documentaries, the filmmaker’s previous works, including the short films Martini the Musical and Hunter4Love, were comedies.
“I’m looking forward to making people laugh again, really,” Camina says. “I’ve opened up my audience widely with Raid on the Rainbow Lounge and now with Upstairs Inferno. People have a perception of me as a very serious person. And I am when it comes to the subject matter. But I do like to make people laugh, and I do look forward to the next opportunity to show that side of me.”
Ricky Everett, a survivor of the Up Stairs Lounge fire, will attend the Dallas screening and participate in the post-screening Q&A session.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 13, 2015.