In the age of “Ellen” and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, the name Vito Russo may not exactly trip off the tongues of today’s LGBT youth. Documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz is hoping to change that with his latest doc, “Vito,” a thorough through-line of Russo’s many contributions to gay and lesbian civil rights. The film will have its Southeastern premiere tonight at 7:30 at Landmark Midtown Cinema as a benefit for Atlanta’s annual Out on Film LGBT film festival celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2012.
Today, the New Yorker who died from AIDS complications in 1990, is best known as the author of the seminal 1981 examination of gay and lesbian images in Hollywood, “The Celluloid Closet.” But from the Stonewall riots in 1969 to the formations of both ACT UP and GLAAD, Russo was there at pivotal moments to help lead the charge for gay rights.
“He was Forrest Gump with a brain,” Schwarz tells Atlanta magazine. “He was there from the beginning. He was out before it was cool. He was politically engaged but he was also interested in the cultural aspects of the gay liberation movement. He was able to create community and show people that we shared a common cultural bond.”
One of Schwarz’s goals for making “Vito” was to introduce the activist to the younger people who enjoy the freedoms Russo’s generation helped to achieve for them. “We do take things for granted and I don’t think the kids today know how it is that they are able to be free,” Schwarz says. “The gay liberation movement is not that old. Stonewall was only 40 years ago and I don’t know that kids now really understand the perils of what being gay at that time meant. You could be arrested in a gay bar. You could be thrown in jail for hitting on the wrong person. I felt like making this film was a way into all that because Vito is such a charismatic, exciting individual. Telling his story is a way into this history. Vito knew that all the work they were doing was not going to pay off for him in the short run. He was really doing this for the next generation and the next two generations.”
Schwarz is already fundraising for his next doc, “I Am Divine,” the definitive bio of Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as Divine, the transvestite star of director John Waters’ trash cinema cult favorites, including “Pink Flamingos” and “Polyester” and one Hollywood classic “Hairspray.” A warning — the fundraising trailer for the doc is hilarious but is not at all suitable for work. Schwarz has already interviewed Waters and Divine co-stars Tab Hunter and Mink Stole for the project and hopes to bring the completed “I Am Divine” to Out on Film in 2013.
“For Divine fans, this will be the ultimate tribute to him,” Schwarz previews. “It’s fully authorized by Divine’s family and by John Waters himself. It was a huge thing for us to the blessing of the Pope of Trash himself to make this movie. But we still need the support of the community to make these films, now more than ever.”
To purchase tickets for tonight’s screening of “Vito,” go to Out on Film’s official website.