On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar located on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. For 43 years, it was the deadliest single event to affect the gay community in U.S. history. Thirty-two people were killed and some bodies were never identified. One-third of the New Orleans chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church were killed in the blaze, including two clergy. The primary suspect was never charged with the crime. The tragedy did not stop at the loss of lives. There were also the delayed injuries: lost jobs, fear, public ridicule and severed families. The devastation was compounded by the homophobic reactions and utter lack of concern by the general public, government and religious leaders. The fire permanently altered lives and was the root of many lifelong struggles.
Despite the staggering historical significance, few people know about the devastating event. Filled with the desire to bring this tragic story to life, director Robert Camina made this the focus of his second documentary feature, “Upstairs Inferno.” Camina’s documentary brings humanity to the headlines by shining a light on the very painful effect the tragedy had on survivors, witnesses and loved ones. Their interviews are gut wrenching, yet insightful. Some of the people interviewed in the film haven’t publicly discussed the fire until now, especially on camera. The film is narrated by New Orleans’ own New York Times Best Selling Author, Christopher Rice.
The documentary has been an official selection of nearly 40 film festivals around the world, winning a total of 8 Jury Awards, 4 Audience Awards, 2 Special Programming Awards and 2 Community Awards. It’s been in the spotlight in the New York Times and CNN. The film has received glowing reviews, including the San Francisco Chronicle citing that the doc “echoes of Spike Lee’s [Oscar nominated] civil rights film “4 Little Girls.” It was also invited to screen at the Library of Congress in February 2017.
Camina, a 2006 graduate of the New York Film Academy 8-Week Film Workshop, recently returned to New York for his NY premiere at the Manhattan Film Festival at Cinema Village. The festival awarded his film with the distinguished Film Heals Award.
“New York has a very special place in my heart,” said Camina at his premiere. “This is where my film career began — at the New York Film Academy in 2006.”
Camina’s first official film, “Hunter4Love,” a short comedy produced at the New York Film Academy, played in twelve film festivals across the U.S.
“The New York Film Academy provided more than technical training,” added Camina. “It provided an opportunity to meet other people like myself. You can’t place a value on that. Before our session, I had never felt such a strong bond with a group of people. I felt I had finally found my tribe after years of looking. My class was filled with phenomenal people from around the world with a common passion: to tell stories. We got very close and in fact, we all still keep keep in touch through a Facebook group. Two members of my class who met for the first time while at NYFA, ended up getting married and starting a family. We not only made movies, we made lifelong friendships. My classmates gave me (and continue to give me) the support to pursue filmmaking.”
A promotional video that Camina directed for the Dallas Theater Center, “Meet Kevin Moriarty,” earned him 2 Telly Awards: “Outstanding Achievement in Direct Marketing” – Bronze, and “Cultural Marketing” – Bronze. The Telly Awards are the advertising industry’s highest accolade.
“Martini the Movie,” Camina’s second official short film, wrapped production in the Fall of 2008. The film screened at 10 film festivals across the country, winning the award for “Best Comedic Short Film (Men’s)” at the 2009 QCinema Film Festival. The film also won the Audience Award for “Best Musical” at the 2012 Out in the Desert – Tucson International LGBT Film Festival.
In June 2009, Camina began principal photography on his first full length feature film, “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge,” a documentary about the controversial and violent police raid of a Fort Worth, Texas gay bar that sparked an unprecedented outcry by the gay community leading to historic change. The film, narrated by Emmy nominated actress and TV icon, Meredith Baxter, opened to rave reviews and a media frenzy in March 2012. It was the official selection of more than 30 film festivals and garnered a number of awards, including 5 “Best” film awards and 3 “Audience” awards.
One of the many highlights of Camina’s career was receiving an invitation to the White House to meet President Obama during Obama’s 2012 LGBT Pride Month Reception.
“Upstairs Inferno” is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, and can be purchased here.