DOXA 2012: Vito profiles the life of the influential gay-rights activist


In light of the local controversies over antihomophobia policies in B.C. schools to debates about same-sex issues raging on in the States, the documentary Vito provides a timely historical context for just how far gay rights have come over the past few decades, thanks to devoted, self-sacrificing activists.

Activist, writer and journalist, and cinephile Vito Russo was one such figure. Jeffrey Schwarz's film traces the life of this charismatic, inspirational man from his formative years, a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness, no one was openly gay in New York City, and police raids of gay establishments were the norm. In spite of all this, including condemnation from the church, Russo remained utterly convinced that there was nothing wrong with homosexuality.

After Stonewall in 1969, Russo turned that deeply held conviction outward, transforming into an influential political activist that galvanized communities (using everything from dances to movie screenings to bring people together for political purposes). From the formation of the Gay Activist Alliance and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (which he helped found) to ACT UP, Russo was there.

One of his significant contributions was his book The Celluloid Closet, a historical survey of how queer characters have been portrayed in film. His discoveries uncover a little-known and often surprising history that is fascinating, to say the least. Believe it or not, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans depictions existed in obscure black-and-white films before the Motion Picture Censorship Code banned such images. And later, when the ban was lifted, rampant homophobia informed the negative depictions that later emerged.

But life took an unexpected turn for Russo when countless gay men started vanishing from communities in the 1980s from what was first known as GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). The identification of HIV and AIDS serves as another, and last, turning point in Russo's life. In the final chapter of his life, Russo transforms from gay activist to AIDS advocate, rallying against the Reagan government and using all his power to instigate change.

Ultimately, the insightful film will give viewers a deeper appreciation for what we have today, and perhaps might even inspire others to tackle what work there is still to be done.

DOXA presents Vito on May 8 at 9 p.m. at the Denman Theatre. A post-screening discussion will be held with SFU English professor and film curator Peter Dickinson and lawyer and activist barbara findlay.

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