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To be completely indifferent to someone’s grief is a show of utmost contempt. When a fire destroyed a gay club in New Orleans in 1973, claiming 32 lives, the city showed such contempt by ignoring the grief of its queer community. The fire in the Up Stairs Lounge went mostly unacknowledged by local officials, and few people know about it today, even in gay circles.

“When somebody told me about this tragedy… I was shocked!! I had never heard of it. I asked myself the question, ‘Why isn’t this story more prevalent in our culture?’ It’s as historic as the Stonewall Inn raid, but it doesn’t exist in the common LGBT history narrative,” reflects film maker Robert L. Camina, whose reaction to the story motivated him to make a documentary.

Upstairs Inferno is a montage of archival news items, personal photos, home movies, and poignant interviews with survivors and witnesses. It is at times very graphic. Camina believes this is important in telling the complete story, especially since the uncensored images were shown by mainstream media at the time.

“…the inclusion of the photos underscores for the audience how absurd it was for the city and religious community not to acknowledge this tragedy or offer condolences.”

With more than 40 years having passed since the fire, it was difficult to find witnesses still living who were willing to talk about it.

“Asking people to resurrect these painful memories is a huge request and I had to respect their boundaries,” explains Camina. Over time he gained ease and trust from participants, which translated to raw honesty on screen.

“We were able to have conversations on camera rather than interrogations. I think that comes across in the film and it makes their stories much more powerful.”

Though the Up Stairs Lounge fire occurred at a point in history with a very different social climate, Camina feels the story is still incredibly relevant.

“As popular attitudes shift around the world on LGBT issues, we risk losing the stories of the struggles that got us where we are today.”

Sadly, the New Orleans incident gained higher profile when its status as “The Largest Gay Mass Murder in US History” was surpassed by the 2016 Orlando shooting.

“No one wanted to see a horror of this nature again. It was a stark reminder that while the LGBTQ community has achieved a lot in its fight for equality, there are many people who still feel that LGBTQ lives are expendable,” laments Camina.

Upstairs Inferno will have its Australian premiere as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival and Camina is thrilled about the opportunity.

“The Mardi Gras Film Festival has a great reputation among filmmakers, so I’m very excited that I get to attend and conduct a Q&A after the screening! It will be my first time to Australia!” (RB)

★★★★

Feb 25, 4.30pm (Q&A with Robert L Camina afterwards). Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney. $17-$19. Tickets & info: www.queerscreen.org.au or www.upstairsinferno.com 

BY RITA BRATOVICH