Robert L. Camina’s latest documentary, Upstairs Inferno, is a horrifying, heartbreaking piece of late 20th century gay history. The film — narrated by Christopher Rice and stocked with survivor interviews — details the largest mass murder of gay people in American history and its aftermath.
On June 24, 1973, an unknown arsonist set fire to the UpStairs Lounge, a small gay bar in New Orleans, killing 32 people. Due to the closeted circumstances of gay life at the time, what happened afterward only added insult to injury as survivors lost their jobs and churches refused funerals and memorial services to victims.
As Camina’s film premieres – on the anniversary of the murders, and as anti-gay Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal announces his bid for the U.S. Presidency – we asked Camina some questions about the process of preserving this tragic piece of history.
Unicorn Booty: What made you decide to work on this story?
Robert L. Camina: I thought I knew my gay history. When somebody told me about this tragedy around three years ago, I was shocked. I asked myself why more people didn’t know about it. It’s as historic as the Stonewall Inn raid, but didn’t exist in the common LGBT narrative. I felt that needed to change.
You wrangled an impressive number of interview subjects.
I wanted to humanize the story and show the real impact the fire had on the victims’ friends and families. It’s easy to trivialize a situation when you gloss over a headline in a newspaper or Facebook post. Seeing and hearing the story from those who experience an event is what truly makes it “real.”
As popular attitudes shift on LGBT issues, we risk losing the stories of the struggles that got us where we are today. It’s our responsibility to honor the memories of those who came before us, including those who died at the UpStairs Lounge. The people who experienced this tragedy paved the way for the freedoms enjoyed by the New Orleans LGBT community of today, as well as the overall LGBT movement. I wanted to create a film that honored their forgotten stories.
One element of the story that is fascinating is that its geography seems to have really dictated the response. It didn’t happen in New York, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco, which we often think of as safer places, historically, or, at least places where, if we are harmed, we have some recourse.
Yes, keep in mind, this is 1973. That was only four years after Stonewall, and homosexually was determined not to be a mental disorder in the beginning of 1973. All that [Stonewall] energy hadn’t made it to the South yet. While people were literally celebrating Gay Pride in New York — it happened on the last Sunday in June — these members of the gay community were being murdered.
The crime was never solved. Is it too cold a case to reopen?
I’m not a detective, but from a layman’s point of view, I think it would be be a challenge. A lot of the forensics were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. The primary suspect, Rodger Dale Nunez, committed suicide a year after the fire. The only surviving witness to allegedly hear the suspect threaten to burn the bar down, is dead. Nunez allegedly confessed to some friends that he started the fire. He was drunk at the time though. When sober, he denied it. Those people are dead too.
Were there people who declined to participate in the film?
Thirty people were gracious enough to grant me interviews and trust me with their memories. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, not all 30 are included on the film. And yes, several said it was still too painful to talk about. That includes the bar manager who led so many people to safety. It’s disappointing but I can’t begin to imagine what it was/is like for him. He lost his partner and so many friends in that fire.
Is there a lesson that you took away from this?
This is a gruesome story, there is no way around it. But I hope through it all, people walk away with a renewed call for compassion: compassion for those unlike us. Compassion for those who are hurting. Compassion for those in need. Because they’re definitely wasn’t a lot of compassion when this tragedy happened. In addition, I hope the film acts as a stark reminder that we need to seize the day. We need to make sure we tell our loved ones every day that we love them, because we don’t know what lies ahead. Life is fickle and unpredictable. Today may be our last chance.