Interview: Greta Schiller, Director of “Before Stonewall”

[Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a larger feature about the women documentary filmmakers who blazed trails for the craft by premiering their films at the Sundance Film Festival in the 1980s. Please read the main introduction to this feature here.]

By Bedatri D. Choudhury

Why did you make Before Stonewall?

It was my first feature documentary. Back then, there were a few documentaries being made about women’s history but we had nothing about gay [and] lesbian history. So it seemed like a good idea to make something and I was very young and I had no idea what I was getting into. So we — Andrea Weiss, who is now my wife, and I — wrote a proposal to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and we got the money. We couldn’t believe it. We had to accept an executive producer, which was not always a smooth ride. But it was such a different time. 

Even just getting people to be interviewed and getting clearances, using images… It was an incredibly difficult thing to do. So I had no idea what a big film festival was like.

What was it like?

So, you know, I got invited to Sundance. I’m like, well, okay. I went by myself, my sister came from San Francisco. Sundance was the new name and Rob Epstein had The Times of Harvey Milk there. And I remember our pacing with him in the lobby during each of our films. That’s a very clear memory because it was just so anxiety producing. 

It was such an open festival then. Nobody had a publicist and the parties were really open. You could be at a party and could actually talk to Robert Redford. It was a really exciting and a much easier time. 

I remember I was one of my film professors D.A. Pennebaker was on the Festival jury and I was like, “Penny! You didn’t give me a prize.” I was jerking this chain about that. But then we went to Berlinale and we got an international sales agent, and I just went everywhere with that film.

What was it like making a queer documentary in the 1980s?

Oh queer was not in the vocabulary; it was gay and lesbian. I opened that film with a drag queen walking in Pioneer Square, and I got a lot of blowback for that. I was like ‘Drag queens led the Stonewall Rebellion!’ So there was a certain kind of conservatism. 

But the good thing was, I thought I don’t want to have to engage. I didn’t want to have to deal with people that were imposed on me, and became really fiercely independent. Andrea got an Emmy for her research on the film — we had just started dating — then we formed our own production company, and have made lots of films since then.

Audre Lorde and a girl friend, "Before Stonewall." Courtesy of Greta Schiller

Before Stonewall showed on PBS?

Yes, because we were funded by the CPB. The first lesbian film they supported, and that was a really big deal. You know how PBS works, it’s like, like 250 stations. Some states refused to show our film so we organized community screenings in those states, working with gay and lesbian groups, and arts organizations. And it was really exciting. 

What would you say has changed in all these years?

The ’90s was my golden era. I lived in London and made co-productions with European television and public television, and was able to make a lot of films that way. There were so many more funding sources for truly independent films at that time. There’s this corporatization of everything.

The streamers would buy independent films but now they make the films themselves, and make them badly. And they’re very commercial, they have their set formats. I think just staying consistent to your own vision as an independent is harder. The festivals are underwritten by the streamers too. 

The exhibition and distribution funnel has gotten so small. I raised my budgets from international co-production and I always got good royalties. I used that income to develop new projects, but now it’s completely gone. One of the biggest problems today is that we used to be cultural, and now it’s an industry. That’s kind of tragic to me. 

Would you say there is a good change?

I have had endless arguments on this with my nieces and my daughter about this question of gender fluidity. People can define themselves however they want and as my daughter said, “It doesn’t matter what you think, you just have to accept it.” And I said, “You’re absolutely right.” So I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. With the young people I know who are making films, they’re more fluid. There’s Brown Girls Doc Mafia, they have a website where you can go to hire your crew. You can no longer say, “Well, I don’t know where to hire a woman of color.” 

Did you have a diverse crew?

It’s always been important to me and all my films. When I went to South Africa, I worked with a Black lesbian cinematographer. In Before Stonewall, you’ll see the credits have a lot of Asian American names. Amy Chen was our production coordinator, so she brought in all her friends. JT Takagi, who runs the Third World Newsreel, did her first professional sound gig on the film.

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