An outspoken leader in the fight for equal rights, a trailblazer in the exploration of the treatment of homosexuals on film and a vocal proponent for AIDS education and awareness, Vito Russo's life makes for the ideal centerpiece for the first joint birthday celebration between the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and AIDS Services of Austin.
The two organizations will join forces this weekend for the 25th anniversary of both groups at an event titled Big Love.
"Vito," the documentary from Jeffrey Schwarz, will make its Austin premiere and serve as the centerpiece film in a series of screenings at Big Love that also includes "Parting Glances," "Show Me Love" and "Paris Is Burning." After the screenings, the space will transform into an '80s-themed dance party, echoing the sounds and feel that encompassed the era that gave birth to both organizations.
The Saturday night event will take place at the Dobie Theater and Events Space and represents something of a homecoming for AGLIFF, which started in 1987 at the theater on the University of Texas campus.
"This is an ideal partnership, and one that speaks to a wider historical relationship," AGLIFF program director Curran Nault said. "It is no coincidence that our organizations are celebrating our silver anniversaries in the same year. Film and media have always been crucial to HIV/AIDS education, awareness and activism, and it was around the issues of HIV/AIDS that LGBT cinema gained a new sense of urgency and began to rise to the forefront in the late 1980s.
"This event serves as a crucial reminder of this symbiotic history and the strength and renewal that is derived through such collaborations," Nault said.
Schwarz has said that Russo and his groundbreaking book, "The Celluloid Closet," which examined the jaundiced portrayal of homosexuals on film, aided the filmmaker in coming to terms with his own homosexuality.
As detailed in "Vito," Russo helped form the Gay Activists Alliance in 1969 and had a profound impact on an untold number of gays and lesbians, speaking out in the battle for civil rights in a post-Stonewall world.
Dovetailing with his passion for journalism and film history, Russo co-founded the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in the mid-'80s to monitor the way gays and lesbians were portrayed in the media.
During the early years of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Russo railed against what he saw as an indifferent federal government. He formed AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power with fellow activist Larry Kramer in 1987 to pressure drug companies to lower the price of HIV-fighting drugs and demand the Food and Drug Administration expedite their approval of new medications.
Russo's very public life of social advocacy to destigmatize homosexuality and AIDS, along with his efforts to show the biased way homosexuals were represented, in many ways mirrors the mission of AGLIFF, according to Nault.
"AGLIFF, in many ways, is what Russo was hoping for when he wrote ‘The Celluloid Closet' — a space for us to tell our own stories and to enjoy entertaining, enlightening and multi-faceted representations of our lives and our communities," Nault said. "(The movie) was a call to arms for ... media-makers, and one that, as AGLIFF demonstrates every year, has been answered by an amazing array of talented artists who have used film as a means to reflect, unite and celebrate our communities."
The documentary uses black-and-white archival footage to detail Russo's personal journey, one that included strategic friendships with such stars as Bette Midler and Lilly Tomlin, and his very public position as a tireless leader on multiple fronts.
"Vito" has a warmth and endearing humanity balanced with a ferocious spirit emblematic of the man himself. It is a story of struggle and dedication, and one told with candor and respect.
"‘Vito' is a galvanizing, energetic, and thoroughly entertaining film that captures the beauty of Russo's passionate politics, and also serves as a reminder of the importance of ASA and AGLIFF, not only independently, but also, and more crucially, in collaboration," Nault said.
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986 Twitter: @Odam