What were the lives of LGBTQ individuals like in the 1930s? The 1950s? These are questions we might normally think of as unanswerable. Dir. Stu Maddux’s new film, Reel in the Closet, shows otherwise.
Reel in the Closet is an exploration of queer home movies and what they can teach us about queer history which might otherwise just fade away. “When I looked at my first queer home movie, I understood who I was in a way that I had never felt before,” Maddux said in an interview.
“My queerness had never been a super big part of my life,” Maddux continued. “But then I saw a home movie of a group of gay men vacationing in 1947. I know you are thinking that home movies are boring but this was completely different. It was a feeling of connection and pride in myself because I could see generations of people like me creating their own happiness even through all the struggles. I sat up and thought, ‘I am really lucky to be a part of that.’”
In order to create the film, Maddux worked in conjunction with about a dozen organizations, including the GLBT Historical Society, the Latino LGBT History Project, and the Library of Congress. “The challenge was that most of the stuff at the GLBTHS archive – hundreds of hours – hadn’t been looked at in about a decade,” Maddux explained. “Never transferred. So our supporters donated the equipment to create new HD versions. Many of the moving images in Reel In The Closet are seen for the first time.”
The film creates a context around the footage through interviews with both the individuals who shot it and those who are now attempting to save it for posterity. The footage itself includes what we might traditionally think of as home movies – images of vacations, holiday gatherings, outings with friends – with raw footage shot by journalists and spectators, news clips, and community performances.
“We have a chance to find it and we have a chance to understand it,” someone said in the film. “And in fact there may not have been a better moment to understand it than this one. People are prepared to be more open about the hisory of family members or friends than they would have been ten years ago.”
Reel in the Closet includes footage from Queer Blue Light – the first gay arts collective to make explicitly queer video – as well as footage of some of the first gay liberation protests. A wide variety of footage is included in the film, from a group of gay men skinny-dipping to the unfurling of the AIDS quilt on the National Mall. In this way, the film attempts to showcase the breadth of the queer experience such footage is able to illuminate.
“We take it for granted that you can walk around with your phone,” said someone in the film. “In the past it takes some money to acquire the equipment and the media.” As a result of the privilege required to make home movies in the past, much of the footage we do have is likely to be that shot by white, cis gay men. Even so, this footage provides a window into the past, creating a record of queer history in a way which was not previously possible.
Seeing images of happy queer people with active social lives in the 1940s can be revolutionary. It rubs up against common narratives of life in the closet as miserable and shameful. LGBTQ people don’t always have examples to show us how to live happy and fulfilling lives outside the mainstream. Footage such as that show in Reel in the Closet can attempt to start bridging that gap.
“Here’s the deal, the best stuff is still undiscovered,” Maddux said. “It’s still in closets and attics waiting to be thrown out by family who either don’t know what they have or more often than you think, don’t want it known that Aunt Janice wasn’t straight and cisgender. I hope this documentary makes people realize what they have. We are all part of the big story.”
“As complete and compelling as this documentary is,” Maddux explained, “I call it a ‘crowd work-in-progress.’ I know that even more compelling home movies wait to be discovered by people in the audience. I make regular updates to the film to layer in some of what speaks to their souls.”
Maddux continued, “People think home movies are boring: A holiday meal in 1960, parents with kids in 1970, a trip to Disneyland in 1980. But put the word queer before each of those. Doesn’t that suddenly sound fascinating? It was to me. And I was suddenly given something really touching and valuable when I saw them. I got to see myself living, moving, laughing- being happy– in 1947. If people walk out of the theater with that same feeling, then I’m good.”
Maddux said, “I have some public access shows sitting in my closet that I made as a teenager. The thought of going through all of them is cringeworthy but I have learned that they are historic simply because I grew up in a time say…when public access was the only way to make something that could actually be watched outside your living room. I think everyone needs to think about how they are part of history.”
Reel in the Closet screens Saturday, September 12 at 12:10PM. If you do not have an AGLIFF badge, individual tickets can be purchased here.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 09/11/2015.