Frameline is proud to welcome back the University of Wisconsin–Eau Clare student group, creators of the Eau Queer Film Festival! They will be doing ongoing guest blogging during their stay here for Frameline36. We are delighted to have them back for their third consecutive year! Here are their thoughts:
A group of student filmmakers from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire are back at it again. After a seven day bootcamp in LGBTQA critical theory and hours of Queer Cinema screening, the group of ten students, two professors, and four teaching apprentices boarded a flight out of Saint Paul, Minnesota and appeared on the west coast about three and half hours later. This being the third cycle of the course, the students have had their share of hype about the experience, but it wasn’t until opening night that it became more than a figment of their imaginations. Soon they were handing tickets to the dedicated golden-clad army of volunteers, sniffing at the aroma of buttery popcorn as they climbed to the balcony. The organ music began to fill the house and the smiles on their faces grew in anticipation of the film they were about to see. It wasn’t until after the screening during the Q&A that they made the surreal discovery that they were mere feet from the seat Vito Russo himself once occupied. His presence is still there today, his passion for film still an inspiration. Over the next several days of Frameline36, the students will strive to embody his love of this art as they take up the task of giving these films life beyond the screen by critiquing and connecting them to their own lives.
Over the course of Frameline36 we will have much to share about ourselves and our opinions, but for today, Vito will stand for itself, poignantly, with power—just as the man himself. Jeffrey Schwarz’s film was a phenomenal Opening Night pick, which resonated with students even days later.
Getting our course underway has been a challenge as students hit the ground running on their own LGBT documentaries and learning to navigate the city and network with contacts, but they took time out to share what Vito meant to them. And frankly, I think it’s fair to say that Vito is quite the inspiration to us all.
As an assembly of individuals, none of which surpass the age of 35, our historical context is mostly on paper. We know of the Stonewall Riots, fights for equal rights for the LGBT community, and the devastation faced during the AIDS epidemic, but never to the extent that Schwarz was able to embody through Vito. This documentary offered something more dynamic, visual, and moving than an excerpt from any GLBT history anthology could ever portray, something Vito would have appreciated. Through extensive use of archival footage and deeply personal, candid interviews with those directly involved in this historical movement and Vito’s life, a beautifully expressive and invigorating film was born.
One student, Taylor Kuether, noted “[Vito has] an incredibly compelling train - moving through his life and his work in a way that begins with his family and early life and ends with this battle with AIDS. His life story is captivating and the film captures his energy, enthusiasm, and passion, compelling the viewer to remain engaged.”
In many ways, this film is a cinematic elegy to Vito’s life. He had melancholy moments of loss and frailty. He was human, after all, but what draws it forward is that endless determination he had to be heard despite setbacks and obstacles as extreme as terminal illness. Vito did not take things sitting down, an unstoppable force, he rallied his troops and waged war through protest, legislation, and action. In Michael Federspiel’s reaction, he states “Russo demonstrates compassion to his community and resistance to apathy.” This, I believe, is the most important sentiment that Schwarz could have hoped to elicit: a call to action.
One student, Stephanie Gottschalk, took issue with the portrayal of Vito as “over sanctified” at times, going so far as to describe him as “gay saint.” Despite her sarcasm on that note, she recalled the words of the young man from the Q&A who said “I’m very new to the gay world, and I hadn’t heard of anyone called Vito Russo until a week ago…but I think he might be one of my new heroes.” Aside any martyrdom that impedes opinions of Vito the man, the film is evidence of a tragic past, but promising future through activism. If only we can spend a portion of our lives working as Vito did, igniting our passions as thoroughly, and causing as much a stir. If only we can deny being silent any longer and finally make the noise that enacts change. Only then, can we honor Vito.
In upcoming posts, you will be introduced further to the students, put a face with their names, and hear their reactions to such films as: I Do, North Sea Texas, and My Brother the Devil.
Until then, Wisconsin out.