Austin Film Festival 2015: ‘Upstairs Inferno’ is sure to enrage

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“Upstairs Inferno” is an enraging documentary from Texas filmmaker Robert L. Camina, and it should be seen by anyone who isn’t familiar with the numerous struggles for civil rights during from the 1950s through the 1970s and beyond.

“Inferno” deals with the largest gay mass murder in U.S. history – an apparent arson at the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans on June 24, 1973. The fire killed 32 people, and some of the bodies were never identified.

One-third of the New Orleans chapter of the Metropolitian Community Church died in the blaze, including two clergy. The gay-inclusive church, which was spreading to various cities during the 1970s, at one time held services at the bar before moving into small quarters elsewhere in the city.

The documentary combines archival footage from television reports, as well as interviews with survivors, gay activists, historians and others. And the people who are interviewed are still full of outrage, in part because the governor of Louisiana, the mayor of New Orleans and the Catholic Church refused to release any statements at the time of support or concern for the victims.

Some historians consider the fire to be the beginning of the gay rights movement in New Orleans, while others feel that a massive demonstration before the appearance of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant was the real start of the movement. Whatever the case, many in New Orleans society turned a blind eye to the tragedy, or belittled the victims as deviants.
The film includes some gruesome images, including the charred bodies of some bar patrons who tried to escape through obstructed second-floor windows.

New Orleans author Christopher Rice narrates the tale. The director, Camina, was born in San Antonio and lives in Dallas. His first full-length documentary was “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge” in 2012, which dealt with the controversial June 28, 2009 police raid on a Fort Worth gay bar.

“Inferno” screens at 8 p.m. today (Sunday) at the Galaxy Highland and again at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Hideout Theater, 617 Congress Ave.

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