Staff Review/ Vito

Cornerhouse Digital Reporter Michael Lyons reviews POUTFEST film Vito

Vito Russo is certainly a person who left the world a better place than when he found it. Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary is a warm tribute and complete biography of a man considered a “gay hero”. Best known for his seminal book, The Celluloid Closet, which examined gay representation in cinema, Vito fought for gay rights and equality right up until his death in 1990. 23 years on, it is time to reflect on Vito’s legacy and his activism. Schwarz’s film says to the new generation of LGBT youth don’t forget the past and fight for the future.

Told in strict chronological order, the film charts Vito’s life from his formative sexual years to his activism to the writing of The Celluloid Closet to his unfortunate early death. With such a rigid format, you might expect it to lull halfway. It never does. Schwarz maps the wider story of the American gay community onto Vito’s life with the use of archive TV footage and interviews with fellow activists and friends. Vito’s vitality and passion is there for all to see, as we learn about his activism with the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Act UP, an AIDS direct action group. For me, the most interesting part of the film is the focus on his seminal book The Celluloid Closet. Vito, a lifelong cinephile, dedicated a vast amount of time to researching the representation of gay men and lesbian women in cinema. Cinema, like society, is the culprit of oppression and it is evident for all to see. Thanks to some golden interviews with Vito, he explains in his own words what his arguments are and supportive film clips are displayed. Tragically, the latter part of the film is about the AIDS epidemic and Vito’s eventual death from the disease. But this isn’t a tale of death; this is a tale of life.

Vito is a HBO TV documentary; its running time is 93 minutes, but it doesn’t feel short. Production value is high; the editing has a nice flow and the score by Miriam Cutler is deftly understated. The slow zooms on black and white still photographs of Vito with voiceover are particularly emotive, and reminded me of McCullin. For anybody who doesn’t know about Vito Russo and the gay liberation movement in America, then this film is for you. I found it to be very informative and moving.

Vito has earned a deserved spot at POUTFEST, but a nice accompaniment piece could have been The Celluloid Closet, a film adaption of Vito’s book. Vito’s examination into the representation of gay men and lesbian women in cinema is highly interesting and profound work. His arguments remind us a healthy queer cinema is important, but maybe more should be done to challenge depictions of the LGBT community in mainstream cinema.

Vito screens as part of POUTFEST on Mon 19 August. Watch the trailer and book your tickets here.