Sunday, November 18, 2007

A highlight of the Reeling Film Festival has a lot of stories to tell about Chicago.

Director Ron Pajak spent ten years researching Quearborn & Perversion: An Early History of Lesbian & Gay Chicago, his documentary that world-premiered to a sold-out crowd at the Reeling Film Festival. The sprawling film covers Chicago's gay and lesbian history from the 20's to the 70's, from nightlife and parties to police brutality and political activism.

Through interviews, newspaper clippings, old photos and videos, Pajak shows us a grittier, unsophisticated Chicago, still very much a blue-collar town with old-fashioned values. While we're reminded numerous times that Illinois was one one of the few states in the 50's without anti-gay laws, we're also aware that Chicago was not a tolerant city. Interviewees explained how coming out to family could get you sent to a mental institution, how police could arrest you on the spot for merely appearing to flout gender norms, and how major newspapers used to print the names of everyone arrested in unwarranted gay bar raids, thereby ruining careers.

Dwelling in decades of unimaginable oppression (by today's standards), it's all the more amazing (an overused word that I'm using literally) and inspiring to hear stories of defiant independence and political organization. A lot of time is spent discussing activitist Henry Gerber and civil rights attorney Pearl Hart, now both memorialized in Chicago's Gerber/Hart Library. The mostly male audience cheered or clapped whenever local legends like Studs Terkel and Valerie Taylor appeared on screen and roared with amused derision at an early recording from a sexologist labeling homosexuals "borderline psychotics."

All of Pajak's time and effort resulted in major archival finds. The film is full of rare video footage of gay and lesbian parties in the 50's and 60's, old photographs and other never-before-seen documents. However, when introducing the film, festival director Barbara Webb said, "I think he might have just finished today." It was hard to tell whether or not she was joking. The film, at over two hours, was too long. Pictures and, more importantly, information was often repeated (such as in a section qualifying lesbians' limited roles in relationships) while other stories were left out. Two African-American women who started Sons of Sappho, a social group started in reaction to the racism they felt in the gay community, were asked about seemingly everything except the very group they pioneered. (Not to mention that the title, a reference to what the police nicknamed Dearborn and Division, the Boystown of the 50's and 60's, is never explained.)

Now that Pajak doesn't have the deadline of a major film festival, hopefully he can take the time to edit what is inevitably a very important and entertaining look at a specific part of Chicago's history. The film's contrast between anti-gay intolerance and pro-gay determination (to party, to rally, to love) shows us how much those two areas have inverted in the past thirty years alone. We become not only aware of how much we have in common with previous generations of gay men and lesbians, but how much they sacrificed so we could watch a film about gay liberation in public, without shame, in 2007. -Don Baiocchi