Finding the Film Reel in Your Closet

Discovering queer history in forgotten home movies

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Crowdfunded film project Reel in the Closet (closetreel.com) gets its Manchester premiere the day before the third What Is & How to Do LGBT History: Methods Subjects and Approaches Conference. The event launches a UK-wide call to find the reel of film in your closet that may unlock the past lives of queer families, with the film’s director Stu Maddox, who is flying in to the UK from USA, making it his life’s work to find such treasures.

February marks the beginning for Maddox of a UK national tour of his film beginning at Rainbow Film Festival in Shropshire. Stu is looking for further contributions of film to add to his growing archive of home movies shot on cine camera that document LGBT lives from the early 20th Century to the beginnings of VHS camcorders dating from the 1970s and 1980s.

Golden moments caught on film

Reel in the Closet is a documentary feature film compiled of footage of home movies that provides insight into the very private and secret lives of everyday LGBT people through the films they made. Some of the clips featured in the film were discovered in flea markets, with no name or clue to decipher who may have made them. An interesting example is the footage filmed in a popular Los Angeles lesbian bar in the 1950s, with suited, stylish lesbians enjoying being serenaded by equally stylish and suited lesbian cabaret singers. One archivist in the film says on watching the footage that it made her heart leap from her chest when she watched it.

At a time when there was a great deal of prejudice and discrimination in society, there were very few places for LGBT people to feel comfortable, to feel happy and to be themselves. Yet this film shows that for a very small percentage at times those golden moments were possible and were even caught on film. It is a beautiful window into the lives of the subjects, showing that relationships did survive and thrive despite society’s prejudice. Although Reel in the Closet does lack footage from LGBT ethnic minority communities and film from outside the USA, this is something Maddox is looking to change after gathering more contributions to his on-going project.

‘To be destroyed’

The fear is now that even more home movies like these are being thrown out and destroyed as people fail to realise their significance, or families seek to hide the past of relatives. This is something all too familiar to visual artist and photographer Sara Davidmann whose recent exhibition Ken. To be destroyed, at the Museum of Liverpool featured photos and documents she discovered marked for destruction by her own family.

The name of the exhibition comes from the subject on an envelope that Sara found following her mother’s death. Inside it she discovered – through photos, letters and diary accounts – about her Uncle Ken’s secret trans life as ‘K’ following his marriage to her mother’s sister. Before her death, Sara’s mother had indicated the materials needed to be destroyed.

The right thing to do

In the past Sara has worked as a painter, sculptor and photographer and her work documenting the transgender community was always something that her mother never understood. It was her work with many trans people that informed her decision not to follow her mother’s request.

‘My mother had asked me not to tell anyone about this but I made the decision that to keep it a secret wasn’t the right thing to do,’ explains Sara.

Now Goldsmiths Media and Communications graduate Ahmed Ateyya has made a short film, to be screened before Reel in the Closet, looking into Sara’s journey from discovering the items in a chest of drawers, to talks with the family on what to do with the items, up to her exhibition opening.

We are family

It is real life examples such as Sara and Stuart’s work that illustrate that much of LGBT people’s recently documented history is at risk of being lost. Both films are being screened at Queer Media’s pop-up event cinema evening Queer Story Showcase whose theme is ‘We are Family’. The event being held at STUN at Z-arts Centre features a Q&A panel including director of Reel in the Closet Stu Maddox, visual artist Sara Davidmann, and Nicholas Gladden from the North West Film Archive who will all chat about the films, the concept of LGBT families and how more LGBT stories and archive footage can be saved for the future.

My aim as producer of Queer Story Showcase is to provide a platform for LGBT films to be screened, with short films from budding and new filmmakers being an important part of the event, featuring alongside feature films from experienced filmmakers. Currently in Manchester there is no regular LGBT film event and my aim is to mix an hour of short films alongside a feature film, together with a live element such as a Q&A panel or a performance.

The next generation of LGBT storytellers

The first event I produced as part of the Queer Media brand was the annual Queer Media Festival (which will return in November 2016). I founded the brand in 2013 on the very premise of valuing, creating and preserving LGBT stories, having been inspired by writer Joanne Harris’ powerful TEDx Salford talk about how storytelling has the power to change the world. In my mind showcasing more LGBT stories can lead to greater acceptance of our community in the future. Ceating new stories and preserving old stories – whether in their original form or in a new form to give them a new life – is all part of the Queer Media mission.

This is why the Queer Media Festival features conversations with LGBT people who work in all forms of the media with writers, filmmakers, TV producers, journalists, those who work in radio, spoken work and poetry, and performance to inspire the next generation of LGBT storytellers. Our aim is to encourage the documentation of our past, present and future. We hope to encourage LGBT people to reach their creative potential by unlocking their ability to tell stories in the ever developing forms of media.

Cultural activism

Whether queer films and their screenings are a point of cultural activism is an issue being discussed at the first Queer Film Festivals as Activism: An International Symposium on 5-6 February in Manchester. The organisers are Manchester Metropolitan University academics Dr. Jon Binnie from the School of Science and Environment and Dr. Christian Klesse from the Department of Sociology, who since 2008 have jointly researched queer film festivals as a form of cultural activism in different European cities (tickets £25/£10 from Eventbrite).

If we are to truly understand whether things have got better for the LGBT community we need to look backwards as well as forwards and remember our history. One vital way of doing that is through film and if you do have some old cine film footage in your attic it may be that you too have that unique window into our past as featured in Stu Maddox’s film. This may be your chance to dig it out, archive it and have it preserved by the North West Film Archive who have a collection of over 38,000 items. Even better would be to contribute to Stu’s on-going project to help discover the next hidden Reel in the Closet, to have your footage up next on the big screen and remember the LGBT communities’ moments of the past.

More information

Keep a look out for tickets going on sale for Queer Story Showcase on Thursday 25 February and the Queer Media Festival in November via the website queermedia.org.uk or Twitter @QueerMediaUK.

If you would like to get in touch with Stu Maddox and feel you have some footage to contribute to Reel in the Closet project, go to closetreel.com for more details.

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