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NEW YORK – An emotionally powerful documentary portrait with an impassioned voice that befits its subject, Jeffrey Schwarz’s Vito marries personal and cultural history in its account of the life and activism of Vito Russo, a pivotal figure in both the early gay-rights movement and the fight against AIDS.
At a time when Wall St. protesters struggle to pierce the indifference of today’s political and financial establishment, this lovingly made HBO doc provides a laudable example. Russo’s advocacy showed pinpoint focus as he galvanized the nascent LGBT community to tackle the church, the State, labor unions, political parties, health and psychology organizations and the media.
Russo is best known for his landmark 1981 book on screen representations of homosexuality, “The Celluloid Closet,” which was made into a terrific documentary in 1995 by co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, both of whom are interviewed here. Schwarz worked as an assistant editor on that film.
Russo’s book was the result of a decade’s worth of research, beginning while he was employed in the film department of the Museum of Modern Art, with access to extensive archives in the pre-VHS days. He then continued honing the material during popular audiovisual lectures. The book catalogues the relatively blatant appearances of gay men and lesbians in early movies through the shift into more subliminal representation during the Hays Code decades. It became a touchstone for generations starved for visibility in popular culture.
Despite the inevitable overlap with Epstein and Friedman’s film, this section of Vito is enormously entertaining, enlivened by countless choice movie clips.
But it’s the chronicle of Russo’s path as an activist, with insightful testimony from family, friends and peers (among them Lily Tomlin, Armistead Maupin, Felice Picano and Larry Kramer) that really elevates the material. Having experienced the era of police raids on gay bars and bathhouses, Russo was on the sidelines during the Stonewall riots. His full-scale politicization was triggered by the brutal death in 1970 of an undocumented Argentinian while attempting to escape during a mass arrest at an after-hours bar.
Moving interviews with his brother Charles Russo and cousin Phyllis Antonellis provide a vivid picture of Vito’s family life, charting his parents’ initial difficulty coming to terms with his sexuality through to their gradual embrace of everything he stood for. This backbone of loving support appears central to his endurance on the frontlines through such a prolonged struggle against oppression.
While the documentary is tightly focused on one individual, Schwarz and his editor Philip Harrison work on a large canvas. They assemble a wealth of archive material into an evolutionary map of gay liberation and pride, with Russo at its center.
The formation of the Gay Activists Alliance was a crucial early stepping stone, with a former firehouse serving as a community center to hold meetings, film screenings, dances, etc. A sit-in against homophobic journalism at Harper’s was a clear antecedent to the establishment of anti-defamation watchdog group GLAAD, which was more directly spawned by protests against The New York Post’s inflammatory AIDS crisis coverage.
That chapter of Vito is particularly affecting, and here especially, Miriam Cutler’s propulsive score gives shape to the film’s emotional journey. The decimation wreaked by AIDS on the gay community in the 1980s, as the Reagan government and the FDA continued to ignore the gravity of the crisis, and the initial refusal of gay men to rethink their hard-won sexual freedoms make for compelling drama, especially for viewers not old enough to have experienced those years first-hand. That big-picture report is paralleled by the loss first of Russo’s lover Jeffrey Sevcik and then of Russo himself in 1990.
Schwarz avoids hagiography, but the resilience and selflessness that kept Russo in the fight even as his health deteriorated make him a figure of poignant heroism. This film is the stirring testament he deserves.
Venue: New York Film Festival (HBO Documentary Films)
Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Automat Pictures
Director/producer: Jeffrey Schwarz
Executive producers: Bryan Singer, Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: David Quantic
Music: Miriam Cutler
Editor: Philip Harrison
No rating, 93 minutes.
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