As LGBTQ+ issues and stories are becoming ever more present, or at least, ever more discussed, there is still much of our history that has been forgotten. One of these moments was “the largest Gay mass murder in US History”.
But this moment in history is no longer being neglected thanks to award winning Director Robert L. Camina’s documentary, Upstairs Inferno, a film that chronicles the deadly 1973, New Orleans, Gay bar arson.
On June 24th 1973, as Queer people across the city and members of the local LGBT+ affirming church all celebrated the last day of the Gay Pride weekend, the Upstairs Lounge bar was set ablaze, taking 32 lives, including two clergy, and severely injuring many others. Additionally, one third of the LGBT+ affirming church, the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), was also destroyed.
Narrated by American author Christopher Rice, the film begins with graphic images of the fire that continue throughout the documentary alongside testimonies from survivors and witnesses.
It discusses the realities of LGBT+ life in the 70’s from hiding one’s true self to watching others revel in the deaths of your peers. Alternatively it also shows the other side, as the MCC seek to serve the religious needs of the LGBT+ community specifically, helping individuals to accept themselves and even holding services within the Upstairs Lounge.
This is what makes the documentary beautiful. It is more than just the telling of a horrific tragedy but a story rich in LGBT+ history. Listen as people talk about interracial relationships in the South in the 1970s, their treasured moments in the Upstairs Lounge, and a heart-warming union between a church and a gay bar.
For director Robert L. Camina, “when I decided to tell this long overdue story, I didn’t want to make a film that was simply a stagnant exposition of facts. I wanted to humanise the story and put faces on the tragedy. I wanted to honour the victims and all those impacted by the tragedy, giving them the respect and dignity they were denied so many years ago.”
For many of those affected, justice has still not been found with three of the bodies unidentified to this day, one family only being notified in 2015 of the fate of their loved one and despite clear suspects, no one has yet been charged for the attack.
The tragedies also extend further than the events of that horrific night with many of the survivors facing delayed injuries, job loss, public ridicule, fear and severed families. Many were unable to grieve as their devastation was compounded by homophobic comments, or at best, an utter lack of concern from the public, the government and from religious leaders.
Though these events completely altered the lives of survivors and loved ones of those lost; very few know about it and even less care.
“We made the film hoping audiences would walk away from it with a renewed call for compassion: Compassion for those unlike us. Compassion for those who are hurting. Compassion for those in need. Because there definitely wasn’t a lot of compassion when the deadly arson occurred” argues Camina.
The Documentary benefits from long lost artefacts, newsreel footage and photographs that have not been seen in decades, allowing it to tell this forgotten story with the detail and love it deserves.
“I’m grateful that Upstairs Inferno is now accessible in the UK and around the world via streaming platforms, because the victims, their loved ones and their stories should never be forgotten again” says Camina.
But, in 2019, division is still as strong as ever. Attacks on the LGBT+ community are on the rise, and cases of mass murders are increasing.
“Sadly, a lot has happened in the world since the film premiered”, Camina continues. “It sickens me that mass murders have become so common. I think Upstairs Inferno‘s message is as timely as ever: the power of family, friends and forgiveness in the shadow of immense pain.”
Even though the arson attack was a US tragedy Camina hopes that the film will cross cultural boundaries. With Brunei legalising stoning to death as punishment for gay sex, Chechnya’s purges of LGBT+ people and even the recent mass shooting in Orlando, USA; the message of Upstairs Inferno is global.
“It’s easier for people to hate and fear things they don’t understand” states Camina. “No matter your background or how you identify, in the end, we are more alike than we are different. I think Upstairs Inferno reminds of us that.”
At the end of the documentary is a song written by Rachel Panay called ‘Upstairs Inferno’ that was often played as the last song of the night at the bar. The bar, the documentary, the song, and now this review, all leave us with this same transcendent message:
“United we stand, divided we fall”