Matt Mueller meets the director of a must-see documentary about legendary gay rights activist Vito Russo
Anyone who cares a jot about gay liberation and pop culture should make it an imperative to see Vito (if you haven’t already, it played at last year’s London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival). Director-producer Jeffrey Schwarz’s polished, absorbing documentary offers both a sweeping overview of the early gay-rights movement and a poignant, intimate portrait of one man who played a pivotal part in the struggle: Vito Russo, the activist and film scholar who exhaustively chronicled LGBT representation in Hollywood film in The Celluloid Closet.
Beautifully stitched together from archive footage, conversations with friends, family and colleagues (including Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin and Lily Tomlin) and interviews with the funny, outspoken Russo himself, Vito covers Russo’s life from early acceptance by his close-knit Italian family to his eventual passing from AIDS-related complications in 1990, as well as the creation of The Celluloid Closet, the encyclopaedic resource for which he’s still best known. It took 10 years for Russo to trawl through decades of film history, searching for any and all depictions of homosexuality, from overt to covert, veiled references to derogatory stereotypes and punitive storylines in which shadowy, self-loathing queers met unhappy fates. ‘It wasn’t just a book, it was also a way to create community,’ observes Schwarz. ‘Vito travelled the world and invited people to come to his Celluloid Closet lectures.’
Russo’s pioneering work was covered in depth by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman in The Celluloid Closet, although Schwarz (an assistant editor on the 1995 documentary, his first job in the business) factors in plenty of filmic treats in Vito, too. But his main aim with Vito is to join the likes of We Were Here and Common Threads in helping younger viewers gain an understanding and appreciation of whose shoulders we stand on in the ongoing battle for dignity and equality.
‘We’re still feeling the ripple effect of what Vito was able to achieve in only a 20-year span,’ says Schwarz, who also directed this year’s LLGFF opener I Am Divine and is working on a new feature about 50s heart-throb Tab Hunter. ‘There was a young man who saw Vito at the San Francisco Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. He was 16, 17, just coming out, and he said, “Last week I had no idea who Vito Russo was. Today I have a new hero”. That’s why we made the film: to give young gay people someone to look up to.’