Interview with STONEWALL UPRISING Producer, Mark Samels

June 10, 2010
Stonewall Riots
Stonewall Riots, Photo by Bettye Lane

Yesterday, Inside Thirteen had the opportunity to interview Mark Samels, Executive Producer of STONEWALL UPRISING, a film documenting the 1969 police raid of a Greenwich Village gay bar, The Stonewall Inn. When bar patrons refused to be led away in paddy wagons, a three-day riot ensued, providing a pivotal spark to the gay rights movement.

STONEWALL UPRISING takes a closer look at the oppression faced by gays and lesbians in the late ’60s, and brings viewers behind the scenes of the riot through interviews with Stonewall patrons, reporters, and the police officer who led the raid.

The film will premiere in New York at Film Forum from June 16-29; it will air on THIRTEEN later this year. Mark Samels answered our questions via email.

Inside Thirteen: How much of an impact did the Stonewall riots have on the Gay Rights Movement? Was the reaction immediate, or gradual over time?

Mark Samels: The Stonewall Riots were not the beginning of the gay rights movement in the US, but they were an important catalyst. Not unlike early events in the civil rights movement, such as the arrest of Rosa Parks or the march on Selma, the events in June 1969 in Greenwich Village would come to be seen as pivotal, and momentous. For the first time, gays and lesbians felt that their own personal struggles were being mirrored in a larger movement—a movement that would increasingly become politically significant. For many, there was no going back to what life had been like before Stonewall. Over time, that sense of a new chapter in the the story of gay Americans became symbolized in annual Gay Pride parades, another product of Stonewall.

IT: What message do you hope viewers will take from this film?

MS: We hope viewers will come to see that the gay rights movement actually has a history, and that Stonewall played a critical role in that history. We also hope that the film presents a picture of what life was like in the US for gays and lesbians during the 1950s and 1960s, the role New York and Greenwich Village played in gay life, and how the media presented homosexuals during this time. If nothing else, this history shows what has changed, and what has not changed, for gays in America over the past fifty years.

IT: How consistent are the accounts you received from the patrons, reporters, and police you spoke to for the film? How open were they in speaking about the incident?

MS: STONEWALL UPRISING is a historical film without narration and a story told largely through witnesses. A few scholars and experts appear in the film, but for the most part the story is told by those who took part in it. We made a great effort to include a 360 degree perspective on the story, from gays and lesbians who took part in the riots to police officers who were sent in to close down Stonewall to politicians who enacted public decency laws that impacted gay life. The filmmakers, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, have a great track record in establishing trust with film subjects, and in treating them fairly and empathetically. That trust was key to getting people from all sides to participate in the film.

IT: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?

MS: By far and away the biggest challenge in making the film was how to represent it visually. Surprisingly for an event that took place in 1969 in the nation’s media capital, the events at the Stonewall Inn were not recorded by local television stations or independent film crews. Only a few photographs of the riots exist. Yet the three days of riots were intense, dangerous and emotionally charged. We chose to depict that intensity through the use of images from other public protests and disturbances of the time—and put a card at the top of the film announcing that stylistic approach. In doing so, we hoped to preserve the integrity of the film without diminishing the power of the story.