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When Greta Schiller set out to create a film about the LGBT experience in America, from the turn of the 20th century to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, she reached out to as many different people from as many different backgrounds as possible.

"I did not want to just have the Allen Ginsbergs or Audre Lordes, the outspoken gay and lesbian people at the time," Schiller said in a phone interview from New York. "It was important for me to tell the story from the point of view of the common person."

Schiller spent four years researching and interviewing bookkeepers, bar owners, chaplains, dancers, retired soldiers, therapists and a range of other professionals from all walks of life to create the 1984 documentary, "Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community."

The breadth of perspectives provided an in-depth look at the events, from World War II to McCarthyism, that shaped gay culture in America.

"Before Stonewall" will be screened tonight at The Loft as part of the Lesbian Looks film series.

Both Schiller and her life partner, Andrea Weiss, who was the archival research director for the film, will appear for a discussion with LGBT historian Elizabeth Kennedy after the showing.

Schiller, 58, said she is still amazed at the longevity of her film.

"Before Stonewall" was her first major project and launched her career as a filmmaker.

It also was the first film of its kind to be funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and one of very few films at the time documenting the gay experience.

"There was 'Word Is Out,' 'Before Stonewall' and then '(The Times of) Harvey Milk,' and those were the only major gay documentaries for a long time," Schiller said.

The process of tracking people down for the project was a challenge in a pre-Internet world.

Schiller and Weiss placed ads in gay publications throughout the country, then hired regional researchers to vet potential subjects.

"They basically had to find out who this person was," Schiller said. "What material did they have? Did they have movies? Scrapbooks? What was their story?"

From there, Schiller and Weiss met with people willing to share their tales, some of whom rarely talked about their lives to others.

Schiller said women were especially hesitant to open up.

"It was like pulling teeth," she said. "We could have made a film that was 95 percent white men. They had less fear, more authority and power. At one point, we said that we could not talk to any more men. Otherwise, it would just be a film about white gay men, and that was not acceptable."

The film rolls out in chronological fashion, ending with the Stonewall Riots, the demonstrations that sprung from a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a known gay bar in New York City's Greenwich Village.

President Obama equated the riots to civil-rights activities in Selma, Ala., in his 2013 Inaugural Address.

"Stonewall was a seminal moment," Schiller said. "It was a moment in time when the attitude in the gay community shifted."

Schiller said she learned a lot in making "Before Stonewall" and hopes audiences have also.

The film has been screened at festivals around the world and is still in regular demand, nearly 30 years after its debut.

"I am still happy with it," she said. "Whenever I see it, I still think we did a very good job."

If You go

• What: Screening of "Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community," with a post-film discussion with filmmakers Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss.

• When: 7 tonight.

• When: The Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway.

• Cost: Free. Call 795-0844 or go online to for more information.

Up next

"Before Stonewall" is the second screening in the four-film Lesbian Looks series, now in its 20th anniversary season.

• "Morir de Pie" (Die Standing Up) screens March 22 at the Harkins Tucson Spectrum 18 theater. Co-presented by Cine Mexico, this film won the Best Mexican Documentary at the Guadalajara Film Festival.

• The series ends April 4 with Erin Greenwell's debut feature "My Best Day," screening at the Loft.

Contact reporter Gerald M. Gay at or 807-8430.