Lesbian home movies highlight our community’s real history in “Reel in the Closet”

I love a well-made biopic. Anything that can transport me back in time to tell the story of a person or people I’m genuinely interested in is gold in my books. So of course I’m excited to see Lili Elbe portrayed in The Danish Girl. That said, such depictions are no replacement for the “real stuff.” Equally as exciting (if not more) as watching Eddie Redmayne do his thing is seeing trans pioneer Christine Jorgensen vacationing in the 1950s. Or watching everyday LGBT people doing things as mundane as skipping rocks or as amusing as taking part in skinny dipping parties in 1947.

As Stu Maddux’s (Gen Silent) new film Reel in the Closet shows, this footage exists, and there’s still so much more to discover.

Christine Jorgensen VacationingMid-1950s vacation home movies made by trans pioneer Christine Jorgensen courtesy The Royal Library: Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Denmark

Members of the LGBT community either made or saved all of the “moving pictures” shown in the movie. With plenty of footage from the ‘40s and ‘50s (and remarkably even some from the ‘30s), it’s fascinating to see what these people thought was important to capture forever at a time when film was quite expensive and had to be shared with others to be professionally developed. So just in case you were wondering (and I don’t blame you), no, you won’t see super-8 film sex. At least not yet. After all, the film’s description states it’s a “crowd work in progress.”

And it’s not just home movies. People took care to record community productions, important events like protests, as well as news coverage relevant to LGBT people. Much of the news footage is the only of its kind that still exists, as it was common for outlets to erase film for reuse.

What a scary thought—that our history is erasable. In the case of home movies it’s even worse, because the reality is most of what’s out there has never had eyes on it and probably never will. Many of these films become garbage or the purchase of clueless buyers. Or they just never see the light of day because families have suppressed the stories from these films so as to not let their true meaning out.

What does survive needs care, but this takes a lot of time and money. Organizations and individuals across the U.S. are working to obtain more of these films and to preserve them. While most organizations focus on the wider LGBT community, there are special projects like the Lesbian Home Movie Project in Maine. Success for all is going to depend on support.

Sharon Thompson, The Lesbian Home Movie ProjectSharon Thompson, Curator, The Lesbian Home Movie Project in Orland, Maine

Reel in the Closet also features footage from the early gay rights movement. The best comes courtesy of trailblazing lesbian activist Lilli Vincenz, who donated her films The Second Largest Minority and Gay and Proud to the Library of Congress. The first covers the famous “Reminder Day Picket” in Philadelphia on July 4, 1968, and the second documents the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade held on June 28, 1970 in New York City. Films like hers that covered the beginnings of the movement are crucial historical documents, especially considering this was a time where media coverage of the community was minimal.

Lilli Vincenzop seq master 060915 Master for Frameline-FOR DCP 1920x1080P 30fps  03987

Sadly, while there’s a lot of protest and Pride parade footage, less exists of people just going through everyday life. It’s a pity, because what the available footage does reveal is that life in the closet (particularly in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s) was not always the gloomy existence we tend to associate that era with.

Take my favorite clip in the movie. The year is 1950 and the place is Mona’s Candle Light, a lesbian nightclub in San Francisco. We’re fortunate to have sound with this film, and so we can faintly hear one of the night’s performers singing. She’s wearing an evening gown, which contrasts beautifully with her colleague, who’s wearing a suit and tie with a touch of lipstick. When the camera pans to the crowd you can clearly identify your butches and femmes. It really takes you back in time and, like one of the interviewed subjects said, I can’t help but think that if I lived in San Francisco in 1950, that’s exactly where I would be on a Saturday night.

1950 Drag King Jimmy Reynard introducing a musical act at Mona's Candlelight, a Lesbian Bar in San Francisco, CA.Drag king Jimmy Reynard introducing singer Jan Jensen  from the film Reel In The Closet used with permission of Academic Film Archive of North America

This is our history, and as such we should care to see more of it, and to see that more of it is preserved. I’ve watched a lot of documentaries and almost all resort to using news footage and photos (many of which are so overused we may as well consider them stock) to tell our stories. There’s nothing wrong with that, but now we have a chance to take those stories further, and even to discover new ones. And we should be freaking thrilled about it. This history nerd is, and I dare you to watch Reel in the Closet and then truthfully tell me you don’t feel the same.

As a special gift for AfterEllen.com readers, Reel in the Closet is internationally available online for free until August 30. You can watch it here.

Visit the movie’s website to find out when it will be playing at a film festival near you.