“This is no horror movie, but the facts and implications are indeed scary. Our nature didn’t look good then and doesn’t now. But, the city did recently place a memorial plaque at the location of the fire. Baby steps.”
Years ago, on an old blog of mine, I reviewed the poignant and evocative documentary Upstairs Inferno, which archived the lives of the Upstairs Lounge arson victims, the tragedy itself and the aftermath. All this time later, the movie sticks with me. No, it’s not just the haunting image of a charred body sticking out a window in plain sight of a New Orleans era willing to turn a blind eye. And no, it wasn’t the sincere emotion pouring out of a man of God being interviewed.
Rather, it was that, up until the Pulse Nightclub shooting, this was the biggest killing of gay people in American history, and hardly anyone was talking about it.
Like bullets, fire doesn’t care who it harms. It just harms. Sure, sure, “people kill people.” This is not what I mean. I’m trying to convey that what was most striking to me out of this incident was the total and complete lack of caring for neighbors, based solely on what was perceived as a lifestyle choice. Ignoring something/someone or flat out not acknowledging it/them doesn’t mean it/they don’t exist. It doesn’t mean it/they don’t matter. The LGBTQ community needed and deserved open arms from everyone back then and all they got – in a city known for partying hard with everyone – were unmarked graves and decades later a plaque.
The city of New Orleans failed in that aftermath and Upstairs Inferno details how and perhaps why.
I was able to catch filmmaker Robert Camina for a few moments and ask a question or two regarding the film, the anniversary and where we stand now:
Bill: I was fortunate enough to review Upstairs Inferno when it was beginning to screen in theaters a few years ago, and was reminded of a quote from my article which states that the film “… does more in 90 minutes to elicit empathy … than the City of New Orleans did in 40 years.” The 45th Anniversary of the arson is coming at the end of June. Is this mass murder still a blind spot for the city and, if so, why?
Robert: I think with every passing anniversary and every screening of Upstairs Inferno, more and more people are learning about this largely forgotten story. So not only is this tragedy starting to receive its proper recognition by the city and by people around the world, but the victims are finally receiving the compassion and honor they were denied 45 years ago.
That being said, I think the city of New Orleans has turned somewhat of a blind eye to a very important element of the story: the burial of Ferris LeBlanc and the three unidentified victims in the “New Orleans Pauper Cemetery”. For years, Holt Cemetery was rumored to be the pauper cemetery in question, but no one knew for sure. In 2015, when Ferris LeBlanc’s family began questioning officials at Holt Cemetery, they were told that the burial records were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. However, there was another rumor that the cemetery in question was actually located in New Orleans East: Resthaven Cemetery. His family pursued this lead. Remarkably, Resthaven had a record for a “Ferris LeBlanc” from 1973. The family finally had comfort of knowing the cemetery where Ferris was buried. Unfortunately, the roller coaster of emotions continued. They soon learned that the plot of land that once was the pauper cemetery was no longer managed by Resthaven. The land is now managed by the city of New Orleans. The area is fenced off and locked. Nothing inside this chain-link fence resembles a cemetery — it has overgrown grass, cypress trees with Spanish moss, no signs, no grave markers. There is no indication that this is the final resting ground for countless souls, including Ferris and the three unidentified arson victims.
The city hasn’t been too eager to help with the family’s search, which is led by Ferris’ nephew, Skip Bailey. He recalls one phone conversation: “The Deputy Director’s office was not friendly or helpful. He was rude, in fact”. Skip describes the search as “difficult, to say the least.”
City departments have often provided the family with incorrect information. Skip recalls, “One of the things that the city told us when I first contacted them was that ‘Oh, those four guys, they were just put in one big ol’ grave and they weren’t even in coffins. They just dumped ’em in the ground’, and that was the city’s official comment to me. Knowing that was wrong, I told them that, but they didn’t like to hear that.”
Through the lack of cooperation, it appears that the city is continuing to turn a blind eye to one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the UpStairs Lounge tragedy: the burial of four victims in unmarked graves — and then losing track of them.
While Resthaven officials have now provided the family with a panel and lot number, they still don’t know where Ferris is buried. Neither Resthaven nor the city have been able to provide complete maps of the cemetery. The area does not appear on any of the maps that have been provided (to date). To make matters worse, they are unable to provide specific plot numbers for the four victims.
Without a complete map or plot information, the family’s search is at a standstill. They still do not know where Ferris is buried on this huge area of land. This really compounds the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy.
Skip’s wife, Lori, adds,”one of the things that we wanted to do was to have them put a plaque on that cyclone fence, to just say that this is a cemetery and there are people here, and they will have nothing to do with any of that…They don’t want any attention drawn to that situation at all. It’s very frustrating, very frustrating”.
The city of New Orleans’ lack of respect and acknowledgment of this hallowed ground seems to imply that the lives of the people buried in the pauper’s cemetery don’t matter. The deceased buried there deserve much more than being anonymously imprisoned within a weed-filled chain-link cage.
Without complete records, who knows how many unmarked graves exist on those acres of land? I have to believe that the missing maps and records exist somewhere and that someone with the city knows where or how to find them. The question is, will that person speak up before it’s too late?
Bill: What has the feedback been like from audiences after watching the documentary?
Robert: It’s necessary to address that two ways:
When I set out to make Upstairs Inferno, I knew I would be asking survivors and members of the New Orleans community to talk about a very sensitive, guarded and painful time in their lives. I was asking them to trust a stranger. Through this film, I wanted to honor the victims and all those impacted by the tragedy and provide them with the dignity they were denied so many years ago. I’m grateful that so many people trusted me with their memories and it was my privilege to tell this story. However, when it was time for the World Premiere in 2015, I was plagued with anxiety!! How would the community receive the film? Did I deliver what I had promised? I mean, this was THEIR STORY! As the names and pictures of the victims appeared on the screen at the end of the film, audience members stood up in respect. That was followed by a standing ovation, tears, hugs and “thank-yous”. I was proud that we were able to create something that humanized history and could be used to educate generations to come. I’m incredibly grateful for how much the New Orleans LGBT community embraced me and the film.
The film went on to play at film festivals around the world, educating audiences about this oft-forgotten story from LGBT history. I’m grateful that audiences and critics around the world also embraced the film.
However, nothing could prepare us for what was about to happen 11 days shy of the 43rd Anniversary of the deadly Up Stairs Lounge Arson. On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen entered Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, killing 49 members of our community. The world was in shock, struggling with grief, anger, and fear.
The dynamic of Upstairs Inferno, which had the tagline “The Largest Gay Mass Murder in U.S. History”, had now changed. The documentary suddenly became even more poignant and relevant. The final two quotes in the documentary are now incredibly haunting and eerily and unfortunately, prophetic. Ricky Everett, a survivor of the UpStairs Lounge fire says, “Look what anger and hatred can do. It can kill people.” We saw exactly that at Pulse and we continue to see that with the string of recent multiple mass murders.
The documentary’s dynamic turned into something cathartic, as people struggled with their grief and understanding of the Orlando tragedy. I believe the film’s theme of forgiveness – survivors and family members finding strength to forgive the person responsible for their loved one’s death, provided (and continues to provide) a level of comfort and hope.
In schools and communities around the country, screenings of Upstairs Inferno have provided forums to discuss the different ways our societal building blocks play a role in the current state of LGBTQ equality in the United States. I’m proud to say that Upstairs Inferno has been in the spotlight on CNN and in the New York Times as part of that discussion and received a prestigious invitation to screen at the Library of Congress in 2017.
Bill: What was it like receiving the Champion Coin from Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning for your work on this movie?
Robert: Prior to the World Premiere of Upstairs Inferno in New Orleans on June 24, 2015 (the 42nd Anniversary of the fire), the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s office contacted me and we worked together to look over the case and evaluate options regarding the investigation. After an internal review, much deliberation and consultations with legal experts, they decided not to reopen the case. However, they took this evaluation very seriously. I was honored that Louisiana State Fire Marshal “Butch” Browning flew in from Baton Rouge to attend the World Premiere to personally talk to the audience (which included an unprecedented gathering of survivors, victims’ families, witnesses and first responders) about the recent re-examination of the case. I was incredibly moved that he was in attendance. As if that wasn’t enough, I was completely shocked, but extremely humbled when he presented me with an honorary medallion called the “Champion Coin” for my work and dedication to the UpStairs Lounge fire story, as seen in Upstairs Inferno. From the beginning, I tirelessly researched in order to tell this story responsibly, accurately and compassionately. The recognition by the Fire Marshal is a moment I will always cherish and the medallion is something I will always treasure. To this day, it’s on display on a shelf above my desk.
Bill: If there is only one thing you wish for people to take with them after watching Upstairs Inferno, what would it be?
Robert: When I released Upstairs Inferno in 2015, one of my goals was for the audience to walk away from watching Upstairs Inferno with a renewed call for compassion: Compassion for those unlike us. Compassion for those who are hurting.Compassion for those in need.Because there definitely wasn’t a lot of compassion when this tragedy happened. I still want audiences to walk away with that – especially now. Sadly, a lot has happened in the world since the film was released and we started spreading the message of compassion and the impact of hate. It sickens me that mass murders have become so common. I think Upstairs Inferno‘s message is as timely and as important as ever: the power of family, friends, and forgiveness in the shadow of immense pain. Hopefully, by the UpStairs Lounge Arson survivors sharing their stories, it can provide strength to others in need.
Upstairs Inferno is not just an LGBT, New Orleans, or U.S. film. I believe the film crosses cultural boundaries and borders. Whether or not you live in New Orleans or whether or not you identify as LGBT, the underlying story should be important to everyone. We are all connected to each other in some way or another. When we talk about our freedoms, our dignity, our struggles, everyone should care, because we are all connected.
To learn more about UPSTAIRS INFERNO, please visit www.UpstairsInferno.com.
Facebook page: www.Facebook.com/UpstairsInferno
Note from Robert Camina: On Sunday, June 24, 2018, the anniversary of the fire, an ecumenical service was held at St. Mark’s Methodist Church (1130 N. Rampart) at 5 p.m. St. Mark’s was the location of the official memorial service in 1973. A Second Line parade followed the service, winding through the French Quarter, ending at the former site of the UpStairs Lounge for a solemn reading of the victims’ names.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews