After coming out and becoming secure in my identity as a gay man, I naturally gravitated toward films with LGBT themes. This was the early 90s, and movies like My Own Private Idaho, The Living End, Poison, and Swoon were formative. These films were outré, edgy, and empowering for a young queer. Even though I was a newbie, there was one book that everyone knew was the bible of gay film. It was called “The Celluloid Closet” by somebody named Vito Russo. This book combined my two favorite obsessions — homosexuality and the movies — and I devoured it. Vito introduced me to a whole world of images I had no idea existed, and helped me see films in a new way. As an activist, Vito knew that the key to acceptance was visibility and championed sympathetic and realistic portrayals of our lives.
When I found out that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman were making “The Celluloid Closet” into a film, I jumped at the chance to be part of it. Working with Rob and Jeffrey as an assistant editor on The Celluloid Closet film adaptation gave me a chance to help them bring Vito’s vision to the screen. It also allowed me to get to know Vito Russo, only three years after his death from AIDS. All of Vito’s research for “The Celluloid Closet” was at my fingertips — interviews, articles, videotapes, lectures — and best of all, Rob and Jeffrey’s extended conversations with Vito himself. Beyond his work as a film scholar, I learned about the years Vito spent battling AIDS as both a person with the disease and a passionate and angry agent for change. Although he didn’t live long enough to see much of the progress he had been hoping for, his work forever changed the landscape for those living with the disease.
The idea of a film came about when I realized that Vito participated in every significant milestone in the gay liberation movement — from Stonewall to ACT UP — and that his story was also the story of our community. A documentary could contextualize how he and his gay liberation brothers and sisters were able to begin to overcome homophobia and oppression, and emerge from invisibility to liberation. We are all living the end result Vito’s work, and our freedom is his gift to us.
As time marches on, a new generation of LGBT youth is coming of age without knowing about pioneers like Vito Russo and how he made it possible for us to live proudly and openly in the world. Vito’s message of standing up, speaking out, and living passionately and bravely in the face of adversity is something we can all aspire to, regardless of sexual orientation. More than twenty years after Vito’s death, members of the LGBT community around the world still face prejudice and persecution, and HIV / AIDS is still a crisis. Vito knew the goal of equality goal of equality and justice would not be achieved in his lifetime, but that it would come to pass. It’s my hope that this film will celebrate one of the founding fathers of the LGBT movement, and allow his work to once again move and inspire us all as we continue the battles that he once fought.