Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Probably best known to cinephiles as the author of The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo was a man who set out to live life entirely on his own terms and to make a positive difference to the world. He succeeded at both. Campaigning first for gay rights and later for the rights of those with HIV and AIDS, he shifted the focus of debate far more effectively than his predecessors because he understood how the media shapes cultural understanding. It all began with cinema.

This documentary has an outstanding cast of interviewees - everybody from Larry Kramer and Rob Epstein to Lily Tomlin, Bruce Vilanch and Armistead Maupin - but it's the interviews with Vito's brother and cousin that drive the story forward. Tales of a boy who would return from the cinema to recite the entire plot of the film he'd seen. A man who became famed for his interviewing skill, largely because he attracted an unusual degree of trust from those he worked with. A man whose enthusiasm was inspirational no matter what he applied it to. Unlike many gay people of his era (and even today), Vito was never rejected by his family, and their intense love for him is still very much in evidence here.

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Then there's that book. A book which was first though to have no natural market, but which would go on to change film studies as a whole and to revolutionise the way America looked at itself looking at its gay citizens. Working in a job that involved archive work, Vito noticed patterns in cinema's approach to gay people - things so well understood now that it's a strange to realise they were once invisible. He looked at the forgotten freedom with which gay characters populated the screen before the advent of the 1930 Hays Code, which banned 'any inference of sex perversion' and made it impossible for such characters to be seen. He looked at how it was resisted through codes of behaviour made gay characters visible only to those in the know, and through narrative excuses for 'straight' characters to kiss or cross dress. He also looked at the gradual weakening of the Code's power and at what followed - a resurgence of overtly gay characters but always as criminals or tragic victims. The good gay, made safe by death in the final reel.

Acknowledging the importance of this work, the film illustrates it with numerous clips from the likes of Victim, Morocco and The Children's Hour. These are a little hit and miss, with the likes of Cruising not really fitting the narrative ascribed to them, but they're still fascinating to watch - and, of course, important to watch together. It was only by illustrating the similariies in these stories that Vito was able to demonstrate what was happening. Positive representations, he argued, could change the way Americans perceived gay people. Taking on a rights movement that had fractured in the wake of Stonewall, he strove to bring people together, to encourage positive work. Almost tangentially, he found himself becoming a respected television commentator, a role model himself.

Despite his enduring vivacity and optimism, the later years of Vito's life were bleaker, and this film doesn't shy away from that. There's a touching account of his relationship with partner Jeff, but the advent of AIDS denies this a happy ending. His vital role in the establishment of Act Up, campaigning for research toward a cure, is told in parallel with a personal story of declining health. The irony of his own tragic fate could not have escaped him, but he left behind a world so profoundly altered that he could never have been considered 'safe'. Rather than wrap itself up in the emotional distress of those who loved him, this film comes across as a celebration of his life and of the work that long outlives him. As a story about learning to see things differently, it's a must-see for every keen student of cinema; and enlivened as it is by it's subject's wit and energy, it's also a great deal of fun.

Reviewed on: 27 Jan 2013
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A documentary about acclaimed activist and cineaste Vito Russo.
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Director: Jeffrey Schwarz

Starring: Larry Kramer, Rob Epstein, Lily Tomlin, Bruce Vilanch, Armistead Maupin

Year: 2011

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: USA


BIFF 2012
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