Stu Maddux’s documentary Reel in the Closet offers celluloid proof that the cultural life of gay America didn’t begin with the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The Novato-based filmmaker culls material found home movies -- 8mm film reels and VHS tapes. In this, a collage of the queer community that stretches back to the 1940s begins to emerge. To shape a story out of this amorphous mass of raw footage, Maddux interviews film preservationists and archivists who share his same passion for unearthing, restoring and digitizing “the residue” of gay life in the 20th century.
Much of the imagery is familiar: pride parades, protests, interviews on the news. But as he sifted through hours of content, Maddux discovered ordinary moments in queer lives that felt just as relevant and life affirming as marches for equality. After a recent New Yorker article featured Maddux and some of his subjects, KQED spoke with him about his career and his motivation for making the film.
How has the public responded to the New Yorker article?
People have found us because of it and have come forward with things that they think might be good additions to the film, or they want to save some of the moving images that they have. We're in the lengthy process of finding what they have and seeing if they can be layered into the film but, most importantly, be saved.
How are you going to manage this influx of new material?
We have a very big idea, and a very small operation. We're trying to find grants and donations that will allow us to grow. In the meantime, we do have the ability here to transfer things and make sure that they get placed with a local archive. It becomes important to work with local history organizations, libraries and history projects.
Is Reel in the Closet then an ongoing, open-ended project?
The endgame for this particular film is when there is a better representation of the LGBTQI Plus community. The challenge for me making this film was that most of the material was made by one group of people because they had the economic means to do it, usually white gay men. That's great, but I know in my heart that there are films out there from a wide variety of people and a wide variety of geographic settings and economic backgrounds and cultural differences.
As we go around the country, it has become a crowd work in progress in the way that I ask for people to look in their closets and see what they have from their part of the country or from their particular family. I, as a filmmaker, like to make sure that everybody has a chance to see themselves.
Why is it important to you that these films are not only saved but shown?
A lot of LGBT people can probably relate to the feeling of feeling isolated in time, in that it's very hard to see what came before us. When you scratch the surface of the history and you look deeper, the fight for marriage equality started generations ago. People living their lives openly started generations ago. Not as much as they are now, but there were some great examples that make you feel proud of where you came from. It's not having a sense of where you came from that was missing and made me want to go after looking for some of these real stories, real people moving in their real lives.
Why are films by and about women harder to find?
That was one of the big revealing things for me in this project. People really didn't still want them out there. There was so much that was lost, so many hearts that were broken, so much at stake. You would lose custody of your kids if you were a woman. Even today there is a residual fear about having this stuff out there.
It was a challenge and really so wonderful when we found the Lesbian Home Movie Project in Maine. The curators there had to work around a condition on release after death or a request from a child who may not want it known that their mother was gay. You feel the fear more, looking and trying to find these home movies of women more often than with the men.
Have younger generations of the gay community responded to the film?
The most emotional reactions are from young people who say, "Wow, that was just amazing because I've never seen anything like this before. I didn't know that people lived lives like this. I only thought that we were put into paddy wagons, or that they raided bars, or that we marched in parades. I didn't know that we had the capacity to be happy." When I was starting out, I didn't have the benefit of real moving images of people like me, before me. That's what I hope younger people can get from this.
I understand you’re also working on another project Queer Ghost Hunters?
We discovered a group in Ohio who are queer ghost hunters, and it is the most hilarious and fascinating thing I have ever seen. They make contact with people from the past who, after a conversation, will identify as having a partner of the same sex. There are people -- regardless of whether you believe this or not -- who are making connections to a person in the past, say 1850s or 1860s. We hope to make that a web series this fall, in October.
Reel in the Closet is available for online streaming.