Saturday, May 26, 2012

Black Sheep interviews Jeffrey Schwarz

An interview with VITO writer/director, Jeffrey Schwarz

I am a 35-year-old gay man and, if it weren’t for the movies, I might not know who Vito Russo is. And I’m willing to lay down money that there is a strong chance that you have no idea whatsoever who he is either. If you do, that’s amazing. If you don’t, make sure you see Jeffrey Schwarz’s latest documentary, VITO, as soon as possible because, believe you me, whether you’re gay or straight, you need to know this man’s story.

“I think if you asked the average gay man or lesbian on the street in the 80’s or 90’s who Vito Russo was, 9 out of 10 people would be able to tell you,” Schwarz tells me when we meet at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre, the day before VITO is due to screen at the 2012 Toronto Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. “Now, not so much. As time goes on, memory starts to fade. I felt that it was really important to restore Vito to his proper place in the pantheon of gay heroes.”

Russo was an activist at his core. He spearheaded the gay rights liberation movement in New York; he is the founding father of gay film studies as we know it, having literally written the book on the subject (“The Celluloid Closet”); and he fought ferociously to bring attention to the AIDS epidemic, even though he too was slowly dying from the disease. His strength, bravery and relentless determination, as captured so well in VITO, bring me to tears time and time again when I hear of it.

Vito Russo in the Castro district, San Francisco
“A lot of people are having a very similar reaction,” Schwarz tells me, when I confide to him that his film had me bawling my eyes out in my living room. “The movie hopefully does what any movie should, which is illicit an emotional response. There is a lot of history in the film and the main motivation was to tell Vito’s story but also, through his eyes, tell the story of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement, to spark an interest in our history without it being a history lesson.”

Schwarz, as handsome and relaxed in this photo
as he was in person
The fact that the lesson needs to be taught at all demonstrates how far removed today’s generation of gay men and women have become from these initial struggles. While Schwarz wants to enlighten them, he doesn’t necessarily see this distance as negative. “I don’t know that younger people really stop to think about what came before them. In a way, that’s not really a bad thing. They just take it for granted; they get up in the morning and be who they are, which is a beautiful thing, and that’s what Vito wanted. The gay liberation movement at the time was raising issues that they knew wouldn’t come to pass for generations. They helped to create the world that we live in today.”

VITO is Schwarz’s third feature length documentary. When not making features, he works tirelessly (there are currently 119 titles to his credit as director, according to his IMDB page, 300 as producer) creating extras for DVD releases, including masterpieces like RAGING BULL and BLUE VELVET. He is currently raising funds for his next feature, a documentary about another gay icon whose history is becoming more and more obscure, Divine, the world’s premiere drag queen. Before that though, VITO will be hitting HBO (click for details) this summer and Schwarz couldn’t be happier about the sizable audience this opportunity will bring to the film.

“I made VITO for our community but at the same time, I made it for the world. He is obviously inspirational to the gay community but he can certainly inspire anyone, as long as you’re the kind of person who wants to change the world. His story really shows that one person can make a difference.”

Russo, at one of his final and most important demonstrations
Thank you, Mr. Schwarz, for telling his story. Now, you too have made a difference as well.

VITO screens tonight at the 2012 Inside Out LGBT Film Festival, at 7:00 PM, at TIFF Bell Lightbox. The charismatic Mr. Schwarz will be in attendance. Visit the festival website for details.

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