This week, indieWIRE‘s in-production column takes a look at a new doc project telling the story of gay media pioneer and activist Vito Russo, author of “The Celluloid Closet.” Three works looking for funding on Kickstarter are also included: the story of an injured Iraqi girl as she gets reconstructive surgery in the states, a profile of singer/songwriter Adam Green, and the story of memorializing 38 Native Americans hung by the U.S. government in Minnesota.
“Activist: The Times of Vito Russo”
When Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman set out to make a documentary adaptation/update of Vito Russo’s seminal text on gay representation in Hollywood film, “The Celluloid Closet,” Jeffrey Schwarz was freshly out of the real world closet. Working as an apprentice editor on “Closet” was his first foray into the film world, and now, he is in the midst of directing a documentary portrait of the man whose work kicked off his film career.
Vito Russo wrote two editions of “The Celluloid Closet” in his life. The book was borne out of his work as a gay activist, where he was an outspoken mouthpiece for a fractured movement. It’s a book that observes things like the homo-possibilities of Cary Grant’s film roles and a whole history of sissies on film. Russo cut his teeth in activism with the Gay Activist Alliance in the early 1970’s, worked closely with the AIDS action group ACT UP, and founded the media organization GLAAD. When indieWIRE asked Schwarz what surprised him so far in the course of production, he confessed, “I was surprised how little people knew about him or ACT UP — they don’t even know what ACT UP is.”
He continued, characterizing the film, “This film is the story of Vito, but it’s also a story of the gay community from Stonewall to ACT UP. The early gay liberationists, they really set the agenda. They would target an issue or statement they didn’t agree with. Somebody in the marriage bureau in New York made a comment about gay marriage in New York. Gay marriage wasn’t even on the table, but the activists did a sit in and brought wedding cakes with two grooms and two brides. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Vito was always there, able to articulate a point of view that you didn’t hear in the mainstream media…He knew how to use the media when the gay movement was just figuring out how to do so. ‘Let’s talk back to the media’ was his motto. ‘Let’s talk about how we were portrayed and how that affects how we feel about ourselves. This is part of the reason he started GLAAD. When they started, it was really an attempt to talk back to the AIDSphobia and the homophobia that were being thrown around at the time, fighting against the fearmongering in The New York Times and other places.”
For Schwarz, telling Russo’s story is filling in a gap carved out by “The Celluloid Closet” film. “This is sort of the flip side of ‘The Celluloid Closet,’ they were trying to incorporate his story into it, but it just didn’t work out.” So what made Schwarz feel like this side of the story was worth telling? “He’s an inspirational figure. A lot of young people got involved for the first time in gay politics with Proposition 8, and they don’t necessarily have the history. After seeing ‘Milk,’ they’re seeing Harvey Milk as the beginning of the gay rights movement. Russo is so compelling and so charming, it’s a way of seeing these years of the movement through one very charismatic man’s life.”
To get to the heart of Russo’s story, Schwarz has filmed interviews with Lily Tomlin, Armisted Taupin, Michael Musto, Michelangelo Signorelli, Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman. He’s also done extensive research sifting through Russo’s papers at the New York Public Library and the vast archive of material provided to the project by Russo’s family. Schwarz is hoping to get a rough cut together by the end of the year. “We’re soliciting donations from the community and going out to prominent people in the entertainment community. That’s how ‘The Celluloid Closet’ raised their money, through word of mouth and direct mail.”
For more information on “Activist,” visit the film’s Facebook page.
“The Beauty That Remains”
Logline: Teeba Furat was almost two years old when a roadside bomb ripped through the back seat of her taxi in Iraq, scorching her face, hands and scalp, and forever altering the course of her life. Teeba’s plight for a simple wig lead her to a family in Cleveland, Ohio, with whom she has lived for over three years as she has undergone a long series of surgeries. The product of two very different cultures and nations, Teeba shares the love of the family she was born into and the one she has come to know. Will she return to Iraq, or live her life in America? “The Beauty that Remains” is a feature documentary that will explore Teeba’s inspiring, heart-wrenching and courageous story.
Production team: Co-Producer/Director: Becky Rolnick; Co-Producer: Brian Fox; DP: Michael Fimognari; Editor: Michelle Fellner
About the film: “When I first saw Teeba, I was at a friend’s wedding. She was full of life, and yet, from what I could tell, seemed to have what I assumed were enormous tumors. Struck by how much light she brought into the room, I found myself compelled to inquire about who she was. The wedding was an intimate affair, so it didn’t take long before I connected to Barbara and Tim Marlowe and was riveted by the stories they told about Teeba’s journey. My jaw was on the ground as I listened: Teeba was struck by a roadside bomb near her village in Iraq when she was almost two. Despite her attempts to play with neighborhood children, she was mocked and ruthlessly ridiculed for her deformities. She desperately wanted a wig. After learning about her in a newspaper article, Tim and Barbara Marlowe reached out to help. They brought her to Cleveland, Ohio for a wig and a medical assessment. They learned that Teeba would need a series of surgeries over many years. The treatment would be more involved than her family or the Marlowes had expected. Teeba’s grandmother returned to Iraq and the Marlowes took in the young girl. The Marlowes, originally called Mama Barbara and Papa Tim, became simply “mom” and “dad” and have essentially come out of retirement to help support her. Teeba had, at the time I met her, already undergone 13 reconstructive surgeries. In addition to dealing with the physical and emotional pain of the surgeries, she has endured the loss of many family members to the cruelty of the war. Despite all of this, eight-year-old Teeba lights up any room she enters. For me, her story has put a very human face on a war I’d mostly understood from a distance.” — Becky Rolnick
Current status: The doc team is currently in production, with 45 hours shot so far.
For more information and to support the film: Visit the film’s Kickstarter page. As with all Kickstarter projects, the filmmakers will only receive donated funds if they reach their target goal of $8,000 by the end of the campaign on December 3.
“How to Act Bad”
Logline: “How to Act Bad” is an intimate portrait of the singer/songwriter, artist, rock star and human being Adam Green, an endlessly creative person as generous with his virtues as he is with his faults.
Production team: Director/Producer/Camera/Editor: Dima Dubson; Producer: Adam Green
About the film: “While on the surface the film may appear as (and partly is) a rock ‘n roll documentary about musician Adam Green, it is a very personal project for both of us. I made 4 videos for Adam’s album last year and in the course of those few months we developed a close friendship and a working relationship that evolved into this film. I find Adam to be a deeply fascinating and talented artist and person, full of charm and wit who is not afraid to embarrass himself in order to stay true to himself and his creativity. I don’t get bored filming him and he’s been a good sport in both giving me full access to film him and going along with any ideas I want to try, even if they are bound to make him feel uncomfortable. My goal is to acquaint the audience with Adam through a film portrait that is intimate, informative and entertaining.” — Dima Dubson
Current status: Dima has been shooting for a year and is in the process of editing. The film is set to be finished at the end of 2011.
For more information and to support the film: Visit the film’s Kickstarter page. As with all Kickstarter projects, the filmmakers will only receive donated funds if they reach their target goal of $20,000 by the end of the campaign on January 16.
Logline: “Dakota 38” follows a 330 mile horseback ride across South Dakota and Minnesota to honor 38 Dakota men hanged by the United States government in 1862. This ride came from a dream that Lakota spiritual leader Jim Miller had in 2005, and in 2008, he and others rode out this dream as a means of bringing healing and reconciliation to all.
Production Team: Producer/Co-Director/Editor/Director of Photography/Camera Operator: Silas Hagerty; Co-Director/Assistant Editor: Andrew Weston; Co-Director/Assistant Editor/Camera Operator: Sarah Weston; Grip/Camera Operator: Adam Mastrelli; Composer: Jay McKay; Media Management/Camera Operator: Pancho Ramos-Stierle; Camera Operator: Jesse High Eagle
About the film: “In 2005, I was invited by a friend to attended my first Native American sweat lodge ceremony on the coast of Maine. Jim Miller was visiting from his home on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, and he was pouring water for the sweat that evening. Following the ceremony, we all had dinner and Jim then informed me of a dream that he’d had where he rode 330 miles on horseback to the site of where the Dakota 38 were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. At the time of his dream, he knew nothing of the 38 and the surrounding history and only learned about it when asking his elders what this dream symbolized. Jim then realized that the creator had sent him this dream as a sign for him to ride out its full duration on horseback and bring reconciliation and healing to all. In 2005 he asked if I would help him create a film about this ride and I was honored to help in anyway that I could.” — Silas Hagerty
Current status: The team has just finished a rough gut of the film and is working on completing the soundtrack and sound mix.
For more information and to support the film: Visit the film’s Kickstarter page. As with all Kickstarter projects, the filmmakers will only receive donated funds if they reach their target goal of $20,000 by the end of the campaign on November 18.
Also in the works:
Al Pacino is set to star as a hedge fund manager in Andrew Jarecki’s “Arbitrage,” Deadline is reporting. Susan Sarandon and Eva Green will star as wife and mistress, respectively.