Risking and Reeling: Three Wrenching Documentaries at Chicago’s LGBTQ+ Film Festival

Last Men Standing, Southwest of Salem, and Upstairs Inferno at Reeling Film Festival

In light of the powerful visibility attained by #BlackLivesMatter, I think (and hope) we’re all wrestling with what it means to live in a world where some human lives are considered so disposable that they can be summarily snuffed out by the very same arm of the state entrusted with protecting them.

But with “sorrow everywhere” and “slaughter everywhere,” as the poet Jack Gilbert puts it, we must also “risk delight” and have, as he writes, “the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”

For me — I accept my gladness by going to the movies.

I found no shortage of delight this year at Reeling, “the second longest-running queer film festival in the universe,” as one of its programmers is fond of putting it. A good deal of that delight came in the form of Buffy, the incisive pet hamster of the protagonist in Closet Monster. (The hamster is voiced by Isabella Rossellini, FTW.) And then there was Taekwondo, described aptly in the Reeling catalog as a “sensual treat.”

Delight doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting. Going to the movies isn’t always about escape. Three weighty documentaries at Reeling put the tragic disposability of some lives — queer lives, in this case — in the spotlight. And found, as we must, beauty there too. In community, in memory, in tender moments, in the fight for justice, in glimpses of hope, in stories well told.

Upstairs Inferno

Upstairs Inferno tells the story of the UpStairs Lounge arson. The 1973 attack, which took 32 lives, stood until this past summer as the largest mass murder of gay people in U.S. history. The film suggests that the tragedy was not just the fire but its aftermath — silence or homophobic snark from the media, little police investigation, no convictions, unclaimed bodies, unmarked graves, and churches unwilling to host a memorial. The story becomes one of ungrievability, a modern-day Antigone.

Southwest of Salem

If you’d prefer a modern-day witch hunt, Southwest of Salem: The Story of The San Antonio Four explores the bizarre and unbelievably awful case of four young Latina lesbians who served years in prison after being accused of ritual satanic sexual assault on two little girls. In the United States. In 1990. The “evidence” has been thoroughly debunked and the women have been released, but they are still fighting for full exoneration. Because one time some children accused them of being satanists. This is what our justice system looks like.

The most nuanced picture of the precarity of queer life is offered by Last Men Standing, a portrait of men in San Francisco who contracted HIV at a time when that meant imminent death. But these men survived, and live with the memory of lost friends and partners, and with the indignity of lost jobs and homes. The film is sad, subtle, beautiful. More artfully affecting than the sometimes brusque, Dateline-esque storytelling of the other two films.

Last Men Standing

The victims in Upstairs Inferno are dead; the survivors have largely moved on with their lives. The accused in Southwest of Salem are presented as extraordinarily stoic, forgiving their accusers, soldiering on. Their story is appalling, but the film, perhaps in the spirit of journalistic impassivity, leaves much unexplored. By contrast, Last Men Standing renders its subjects more fully, giving texture to their grief, presenting them with more palpable human specificity even when this makes the men seem more ghostlike — haunted and haunting figures in a youth-obsessed gay landscape, remnants of some other San Francisco. The film is not just about series of painful events, but about living with a melancholy that pervades everyday tasks and makes its presence felt even, or especially, in those special moments when delight, as it must be, is so bravely risked.