It's only been a little more than a year since the It Gets Better Project launched and created a virtual bridge between LGBTIQ youth and their elders that's caught on like wildfire. Its simple yet effective format features video vignettes of queer adults speaking directly to the camera, relating their own experiences growing up in isolation and contrasting these with how they were able to transform their lives as adults. This ever expanding array of accessible born digital content, 250,000 videos and counting, was created to help combat the high rates of gay teenage suicide. Sharing stories can be a tool of survival for individuals and communities, as well as a tool for social change.
As a young queer coming of age in the midwest during the eighties, most of the images I had of other gay people were from mainstream media, partially closeted celebrities and news coverage of a burgeoning A.I.D.S. crisis that had right wingers talking about quarantining gay men. I was lucky enough to also have a public high school teacher that screened The Times of Harvey Milk and punk rock to escape into.
When I first moved to San Francisco in the mid-nineties, I volunteered at the San Francisco International LGBT film festival to meet new people and get free tickets to see the films. Frameline has been on the forefront of sharing LGBT media since it’s founding in 1977, and does distribution as well as exhibition. In 2005, Frameline made a bold move in making its extensive film festival collection accessible to the public by donating it to the Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center of San Francisco Public Library. This included not only the movies shown in past festivals, but films submitted which were never screened. This June, in celebration of Frameline’s 35th year, the Library partnered with BAVC’s preservation department and preserved the first batch of these tapes.
"The Hormel Center’s Frameline Movie Archive Project represents a unique resource for researchers and historians as well as a being a pioneering force in LGBT media preservation and access." says Jenni Olson, who serves as a a project consultant as well as being one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a filmmaker to boot.
I asked her about the process of selecting the first small batch of tapes for preservation.
“Sifting through the Frameline collection — more than 5,000 LGBT videotapes amassed over the festival's 35 years of existence — was an emotional roller-coaster experience for me each and every day. I would find myself tearing up as I handled tapes of films by filmmakers we had lost in the AIDS crisis — including early and obscure works by people like Derek Jarman, Stuart Marshall, Marlon Riggs. And then five minutes later, I would have the joyfully thrilling experience of coming across exhibition tapes of works where it was evident this would very likely be the only surviving (or accessible) high-quality master — a great example of this is the Jane Dornacker short, Anita Sperm."
At BAVC we received an array of Umatic, BetaSp and vhs tapes. All of these formats are subject to deterioration and there is a limited span of time to preserve the material, lest it be lost forever and along with it, a vast wealth of queer history.
Jenni Olson continued, “I want to call attention to how exciting it is that the Hormel Center is taking the lead in preserving LGBT moving images that have originated on video formats. There is no other entity specifically focused on this important need. The Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation is dedicated to film preservation (they have done some video preservation but it is not their primary focus).”
“Two of the most significant titles preserved via the Hormel Center partnership with BAVC are:
You Can Know All I Am (1986)
Filmmaker Nancy Rosenblum no longer has the master of this 1986 documentary which was commissioned by Connexus, El Centro de Mujeres, now no longer in existence. The video was used as a teaching tool in high schools and had a theatrical screening at AFI in Los Angeles. One of the few lesbian documentaries of the mid 1980s, You Can Know All I Am combines interviews, archival footage and stills to convey stories of lesbian herstory and lesbian lives.
Out of The Shadows (1990) This short documentary portrait of black gay men and transgender women in Washington D.C. is narrated by poet Essex Hemphill. The video played at Frameline in 1990 on the same program as Tongues Untied. It was created by a production company called the Washington D.C. Media Project — we’ve been unable to locate any contact despite extensive research.”
At BAVC, using our reserve of obsolete tape cleaning machines, decks and time based correctors, we migrate analog material to digital files . This is, of course, not a permanent solution, but that’s another blog post. As all of our transfers are supervised, I had the opportunity to watch the fifteen tapes Jenni chose. ‘Out of the Shadows’ was indeed a moving and powerful document to survival, and it lightened my heart to know it could again be seen by teenagers and adults alike.
Another gem was a KGO program recorded on umatic, a news room standard format back in the day. Lesbians :The Invisible Minority offers a glimpse of the heart of the women’s community (gay and straight) in what the voice over describes as “the low rent district of Valencia street between 17th and 23rd”. A montage of the area reveals such legendary relics as the lesbian bar Amelia’s, the bookstore Old Wives Tales and numerous cafes that cropped up long before the arrival of Michelle Tea . The only facade familiar to me was The Women’s Building.
An interview with Margaret Sloan, Black Feminist,and earlier editor of Ms. Magazine , was enough to give me pause and wonder about the vast episodes of queer history that is already slipping through our fingers.
Jenni Olson remarks that “There are many, many invaluable treasures in the collection that are in urgent need of preservation. We are continuing to work on the project and are also excited to facilitate greater access to these amazing moving images as well. Stay tuned to the Hormel Center website for details about the next film titles ”
This Fall the Library will receive an additional gift of films submitted to the festival from 2006-2011. I look forward to seeing more work and sifting through the multitudes of stories. As they say, it just gets better all the time
*Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered Intersex and Queer.
Sarolta Jane Cump is BAVC’s senior preservation technician.