Many contrasting feelings come to surface whilst watching Upstairs Inferno, Robert L. Camina’s new feature documentary about the horrific arson in a New Orleans’ gay bar in the 70s which killed 32 people. Anger and frustration, stupor and fear, deep sadness and yet ultimately a beacon of hope shape up the emotional rollercoaster that the audience is taken on by this savvy mesh up of archival footage, newspaper clippings and several interviews with some of the survivors but also testimonies from some of the victims’ family, friends, regular patrons of the bar and historians reconstructing the tragic events.
The recent despicable attack on the Gay community in Orlando is inevitably the first thing that comes to mind. Up until last June’s devastating tragedy in Florida, the Upstairs Lounge arson that took place on June 24th 1973 in New Orleans had remained the deadliest gay mass murder in US history. But sadly, as we’re well aware, history repeats itself and what happened in Florida, unfortunately, makes this tragic episode in LGBT history more current and relevant than it could have ever been.
Upstairs Inferno however doesn’t simply reconstruct the chronicle of a tragic piece of vintage news for people like me who weren’t even born at the time. The filmmakers dig deep into the personal stories of the survivors, some of whom appear exclusively for the first time and, thanks to the contribution of the victims’ loved ones who were left behind, they also reveal the heart-wrenching tales of those who perished. By the time credits roll, no matter what’s your background, it’s impossible to not empathize with these people’s devastating losses, yet it’s infuriating to learn how back in the day the significance of their death was barely acknowledged.
One of the most outrageously blood-stirring moments in the film is in fact when we learn that the New Orleans’ mayor and the archbishop offered their condolences and prayers for the victims of another local, fire-related incident that occurred at the time and had way less casualties. Yet they didn’t even spend a single word on the deaths at the Upstairs Lounge for reasons that don’t need spelling out, just as if those lives didn’t matter and were expendable.
Such an unforgivable treatment of the people involved in the tragedy led to things becoming politically charged, especially taking into account that one-third of the New Orleans chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church were among the victims, including two members of clergy. The MCC is an international Protestant Christian denomination and their fellowship specifically reaches out to LGBT families and communities. One of the documentary’s interviewees is MCC’s Reverend Elder Troy Perry who talks about how the Upstairs Lounge had opened its doors to the MCC’s congregation to host their services in town, as nobody wanted to host a “gay church”.
Reverend Perry’s testimony is particularly heartfelt and emotionally charged and not just when he speaks about the MCC victims. His empathy is rather affecting when for instance he breaks in tears talking about a couple of lovers who perished in the fire and their remains were found on top of each other in one final embrace. And what’s even more heartbreaking was that one of these men had a son who was spending that weekend with him. Perry recollects how people at first dreaded the off chance the boy might’ve been at the Upstairs Lounge as well. But they later found out he had been dropped off at a movie with a friend and was supposed to be picked up later by his father, who of course never arrived.
The now adult man offers a moving testimony in the film about how he sensed something wrong must’ve happened when his dad never showed up. Yet, it took days for him to even being told the horrible news that his father had died. The more you hear from these testimonies, the harder it gets to reconcile yourself with the level of unfairness and injustice these people had to face: from the despicable lack of compassion and empathy when trying to find a venue to hold a memorial service to the equally infuriating lack of commitment put into the investigation by the police.
Filmmaker Robert L. Camina, however, is commendable for constructing a film aimed towards conveying the hopeful message of finding light within the darkness and a sense of community in the midst of societal ostracism. In that respect, the Upstairs Lounge tragedy was pivotal in building up the foundations of the LGBT movement in New Orleans, as illustrated by the images of the moving memorial held for the tragedy’s 40th anniversary.
Narrated with personality by famed New Orleanian and New York Times best-selling author Christopher Rice, Upstairs Inferno isn’t just compelling viewing for its journalistic competence and historical value but most importantly it’s essential viewing for its social value, showcasing how far we’ve come and still have yet to come and eventually proving that somewhere out there it’s always possible to find loving, compassionate people that will see past our differences.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Robert L. Camina