Forty years ago a small bar called the Stonewall Inn in a corner pocket of New York’s West Village sparked the legendary Stonewall riots that spearheaded the global gay liberation movement. In 1984, seasoned documentarian Greta Schiller shot the multi award-winning Before Stonewall, both in response to these riots and as a way of investigating how the modern lesbian and gay movement had formed itself into a social and political force up until that moment.
I meet Schiller in London during the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. When I tell her the interview is for The List, she remembers: ‘When the film screened in Edinburgh way back when, there’s a scene in Craig Rodwell’s bookshop, and behind his head is the magazine Gay Scotland. Everybody went crazy!’
Featuring interviews with the gay and lesbian cultural glitterati (Allen Ginsberg, Ann Bannon and Audre Lourde among them), this film belongs to the movement’s courageous foot soldiers. Finding these people and getting them to talk on camera took a lot of painstaking research. In the traditional film archives, instead of looking at categories under ‘images of gays’ or ‘homosexuals’, they ended up discovering material listed under ‘pervert’ and ‘sexual perversion’. ‘Considering the tendency towards erasure,’ said Andrea Weiss, the film’s archival researcher, at the time, ‘it is amazing we’ve been able to reconstruct our history at all.’
This is truly a landmark piece of queer history filmmaking that should never be relegated to the top shelf. Extras include deleted scenes featuring Quentin Crisp, and a lively panel debate with Richard Kwietniowski, Ken Livingstone, Monika Treut and Greta Schiller.