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History Shall Not Be Lost

A Profile on the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation

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Somewhere not so far away, very quietly and unnoticed to the masses, history is disappearing. It’s fading away to tragic consequences because without knowledge of the past, we continue to head blindly into the future. Yes, we will always have classic books, paintings, photographs and pieces of music serving as historical bookends, but for a lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender filmmakers over the last century, their works of art have already been lost for good.  But thanks to the pioneering Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation, all hasn’t been lost yet.

Different from the Others, the first, nearly 100-year-old, feature-length silent film ever made that paints an accurate depiction of LGBT people in 1919, screened last Saturday night to myself and hundreds of other gleaming members and friends of the LGBT community during the 2012 Legacy Awards at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, hosted by actor Michael Urie of CBS’ Partners. Courtesy of the Legacy Project’s restitution efforts, in partnership with the UCLA Film & Television Archive, a newly restored Different from the Others features actor Conrad Veidt as a violinist and music teacher who falls in love with his male student. But things soon go awry when a blackmailer threatens to expose their relationship, resulting in imprisonment under Paragraph 175, the law banning homosexuality in 1919 Germany.

It was the UCLA Film and Television Archive staff, specifically UCLA Film Preservationist Jere Guldin, who assembled the film fragments that brought the live-action scenes to life right before our eyes. And famed musician Robert Israel was the genius behind the live Wurlitzer organ music that accompanied the recreated, English intertitles, giving it that extra amount of authenticity that audiences of that time might have enjoyed.

The entire evening was enchanted with a musical performance by Glee star Darren Criss, who was poised to present the 2012 Legacy Visionary Award to Neil Meron and Graig Zadan, executive producers of NBC’s hit show Smash, the 2002 Oscar-winning Best Picture Chicago, and producers of the upcoming 85th annual Academy Awards. As true “visionaries,” Neil and Craig have consistently pushed for the visibility and equality of all disenfranchised and underrepresented people, executive producing the remake of Steel Magnolias, featuring an all black cast that includes Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard and Phylicia Rashad, the multi-ethnic, made-for-TV Cinderella, starring the late Whitney Houston, Brandy, and Paolo Montalbán, and the Tony Award-winning production How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, which presenter of the Visionary Award Darren Criss made his Broadway acting debut in.

Yes, the night belonged to some of the most revolutionary creative thinkers of our time and a century before our time, as the evening culminated with a truly historical event: the revitalization of a significant part of LGBT history.

The Fight

“I’m thinking the opportunity to screen Different from the Others in major cities is likely,” said Project Manager of Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation Kristin “KP” Pepe. “And I only say that because all of the films that we’ve restored have been requested to screen in other cities, so I’m just imagining that Different from the Others will follow suit.” In fact, KP and her staff have already been fielding phone calls from other programmers interested in showing the restored print. And part of their plan is to make 35mm prints for theatrical showings as well as DVD copies that, hopefully, will include commentary for distribution to high school and college classrooms. I had the pleasure of speaking with KP about the challenges of restoring Different from the Others and about the Legacy Project.

It’s been noted that Different from the Others has been the Legacy Project’s most considerable restoration to date, in part due to the magnitude of the restoration process with only a fragment of the film having existed until now.  KP commented, “With most films, you can usually find a negative, or somebody who is still alive who was connected to the film to give you more information, but that wasn’t the case with Different from the Others since a lot of the documentation surrounding the film was destroyed.”

Needless to say, documentation surrounding the film was destroyed because Different from the Others was an extremely radical and igniting piece of art for 1919 Germany. It was directed by Richard Oswald (1880-1963) and written by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935)- a member of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Berlin, a committee credited with starting the 1897 homosexual emancipation movement- their key agenda to abolish Paragraph 175. Although it would be amended several times following the Nazi’s rise to power in the early 1930’s, Paragraph 175 was originally added to the Reich Penal Code in 1871, according to The Internet History Sourcebooks Project, reading: An unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex or by humans with animals is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights might also be imposed.

The Refusal

Disposing stereotypes and ending the persecution of homosexuals were the main reasons Dr. Hirschfeld supervised the script and served as the uncredited sexologist on the film. “Different from the Others was made during a short period of time in which the censorship ban had been lifted, so it’s a pretty harsh criticism of Paragraph 175,” KP commented. “And I think it was made in the vein of public health to educate people about this issue.” But according to James D. Steakley, UW-Madison professor of German studies and author of Cinema and Censorship in the Weimar Republic: The Case of Anders als die Andern, the Prussian National Assembly wanted Different from the Others banned for glorifying homosexuality just four months after its premier in May of 1919. It was already banned in Bavaria prior to its scheduled July opening, and was eventually banned in Austria as well. It had limited screenings in Northern Germany, but almost no screenings whatsoever in Southern Germany until it was banned completely after the reinstitution of national censorship in 1920.

By the 1930’s, after the Nazi’s rise to power, and during WWII, Dr. Hirschfeld’s entire archive was believed to have been destroyed. “He had made a documentary where he’d cut part of the original Different From the Others into a shortened version he named Innocently Persecuted,” KP explained. “All other elements of the original Different From the Others were destroyed, and there was only this 45-minute fragment of the already shortened Innocently Persecuted left.” That fragment made its way to the Russian Film Archive until it was extradited to the Federal German Archive in 1970. “They had done some video preservation work on the film, but they had never gone all the way and made new negatives and new prints because it’s very expensive,” KP said. “So we decided that it was important to finish it and make this new element, and the people at UCLA really researched and found new information that they used to make this new emergence of the film.”

The Response

Beginning in 2005, this is the 18th film restoration that the Legacy Project, in partnership with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, has restored- other feature films including Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986) and the Mariposa Film Group’s Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1978). “Because most gay films are independently made outside of the studio system, there’s no perceived commercial value, and there’s no system in place to support the preservation of these films,” KP commented. “And because we lost a lot of people to AIDS in the 80’s, a lot of those filmmakers are not around today to take care of their films themselves, and as a result, there’s been a crisis in LGBT film restoration. This is why the Legacy Project was created.”

Made up of three parts: access, preservation and education, the Legacy Project has proven to be a multifaceted organization intent on fulfilling their overall mission for equality. They’ve already made LGBT film more accessible through their Outfest Legacy Project Screening Series, a bimonthly event that screens works from the Outfest Legacy Collection, made up of over 5000 titles. And due to the Fair Education Act that was signed by Governor Jerry Brown in July of last year, which will require California schools to teach and accurately portray the LGBT civil rights movement and contributions of the LGBT community, KP and her staff are working hard to increase their educational resources as well. “We’re going to be raising funds in order to create curriculum guides so that the teachers can look at a film like Different from the Others, one of the first feature-length films ever made featuring gay characters, and use it to educate their students,” KP said.  “And we’re also going to make a study guide for the students as well.”

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KP has already spoken to a gay librarian’s group where she did a show-and-tell workshop on how to identify video formats, as well as provided them with packets on how to store the video footage. Then there’s the Models of Pride conference, a free, one-day conference focusing on the issues and interests of LGBT youth under the age of 24, where KP has given lectures on gay history. “I picked a year, I believe it was 1965, and I showed them films made by gay people about gay people, and then I showed them movies made about gay people by straight people, and you can imagine the difference in which gays were depicted by the different groups,” she says.

And in terms of preservation, KP is constantly talking to filmmakers about archiving their work. “It’s my favorite part of the job,” she said. “I speak at conferences and organizations about it, and in terms of restoration, UCLA Film and Television Archive does all the hands-on work; they have vaults with the right temperature and humidity for storage, and they have the largest collections of media materials in the United States and of any university in the world. Meanwhile, I have a committee of advisors, and we come up with a list of films that we want to preserve. Then we talk with UCLA about it, and that’s the process that led to Different from the Others.”

Longevity

Now, thanks to the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation, a major part of history has been uncovered and will continue to live one. Future generations of LGBT youth will be able to watch Different from the Others, and similar films, and be educated about LGBT filmmakers and artists who helped influence change- resulting in even further advancement of the LGBT community. But in order to secure this advancement indefinitely, the buck mustn’t stop at preserving and restoring film.

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“Film has been around for 115 years, and it works today the same as it did 115 years ago,” KP commented. “For the most part, we understand it, but with video and digital, the archiving process has already proven to be extremely difficult. And that raises the question of how are we going to preserve all of it when the time comes because a lot of independent filmmakers are shooting everything on digital now.” KP’s hope is that the Legacy Project will be able to address this growing problem by encouraging filmmakers to include preservation costs into their budgets early on, and to consider making back-up masters to hand off to an archive.

And this is crucial in order to keep the history that is happening everyday and all around us from disappearing because if you erase our films, our images, our history, you erase us.

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Author: nohoarts