Remembering Artie

An appreciation of pioneering gay filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. by Emmy Award-winning director Greta Schiller.

One of the pioneers of independent gay cinema in the 1970s and ’80s, Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. (May 27, 1943 — July 29, 1987) is best known for his devastating 1985 drama, Buddies (the first feature film about AIDS), and his groundbreaking 1977 film, Gay USA (the first documentary by and about LGBT people). Working across multiple genres, including documentary, narrative, adult and short form filmmaking, Bressan’s boldness and artistry as a writer-director earned him both acclaim and controversy over the course of his decade-long filmmaking career. Bressan died of AIDS in 1987. The majority of his films have long been unavailable. The Bressan Project is currently undertaking efforts to preserve and make them available once again and has now re-released Buddies, Gay USA and his 1974 debut feature, Passing Strangers.

Artie has a special place in my life, in my heart, in my career. I keep a Chinese vase filled with the names of the many friends lost to AIDS. They are the boys on the shelf. I can still hear Artie and his childhood friend Vito Russo laughing, and when I see fireflies in my garden I often think of them as the spirits of Artie, Vito, Bill, John, Manfred, David, Stuart, Joe and many other men I loved, dancing with Tinker Bell. Forever young.

This keeps them alive in my soul. Writing about Artie anytime would be a challenge; during the triple threat of COVID-19, climate change and police murdering Black people, it is especially difficult. The parallels of government inaction and denial are striking. With Black Lives Matter, there is some positive movement toward finally making deep institutional changes. And the people rising up also have parallels to the time when I met Artie in the early ’80s. I would love to walk the streets of Chelsea with Artie, his keen insight, his joie de vivre, his anger would be a balm in troubled times.

I had seen his film Gay USA and it inspired me to “call a meeting” of gay and lesbian filmmakers in New York City to produce a film on the First Gay and Lesbian National March on Washington in 1979. The four producers of that film, Rob Epstein, Lucy Winer, Frances Reid and I, followed in his footsteps – gathering volunteer crews, raising cash through benefits, believing the film needed to be made and just doing it. I was 24 years old, out, proud and very loud. Still am. So Artie influenced me before I ever met him. That was who he was: inspirational.

Arthur Bressan Jr. (Image courtesy of the Bressan Project.)

Artie had to make movies. He did not wait for the film industry to allow us to make queer films. He grabbed his 16 mm camera, formed crews from his friends and a loose network of filmmakers (there were only a handful of them), raised cash for film processing from his friends (including his dentist), and went out into the streets. He showed the world that we were vibrant, multiracial, all genders – and despite Anita Bryant, we were not going back into the closet.

In the ’70s, our battle cries were “We Are Everywhere” and “An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail.” Artie loved butch men and women, drag queens, black, brown and white. He judged people by who they were, and how they treated others. Artie was exceptional in that he loved women. He had none of the misogyny that was (and still is) rampant in our culture, even in the LGBT community. He knew who and what he was, and he was not threatened by women.

While making my first feature, I had to constantly fight to include women both in front of and behind the camera. Men gave lip service to my vision of inclusion while undermining my director’s vision. I was so naïve, I often could not see this; Artie taught me how to read the signs. Artie and Vito Russo were staunch allies from the moment we met to the day they each died. On the release of Before Stonewall, Artie suggested we announce our engagement – he said anything to get press was good for a film.

Artie and I shared another vital identity: we were working class in a middle-class film world. We grew up poor in small apartments, we were the first in our families to go to college, we were bold and direct. Artie knew the middle-class codes and we would mimic them and roar with laughter. With no inheritance to lose, no chance of a career in the family business, no desire to even have a “career,” it was possible to take what today would be seen as very risky career moves. He was deeply honest, never minced words, made radical connections to history in his films. Who else would intercut Nazi parades with Gay Pride marches – saying that conformity, following orders rather than your own desire, was not moral … He knew that social conformity was stifling and to make any kind of conforming into a political rallying cry was dangerous. Indeed.

Filmmaker Greta Schiller (left) in 1985 with a cake celebrating her classic documentary, Before Stonewall.

Lets talk about sex. After all, before lesbians, gays, nonbinary and trans people demanded the right to bear children, to adopt, to keep the biological kids queers had from encounters with the opposite sex, before insurance covered partners, before marriage equalized taxes, inheritance, visitation rights in a hospital, the right to keep your job if you were queer – before all that, it was about same-sex sex. Artie loved sex. As recently as February 2019, at the Berlin Film Festival screening of his 1985 film Buddies which I introduced, men approached me after to say they had sex with him. TMI, but a way for them to share our memories of Artie. At one festival we attended together, where both of us were screening a film, he told me he went to festivals because he might meet the man of his dreams.

Artie’s “adult” films had narratives, used cinematic language, drew on his vast love of Hollywood cinema. That too was revolutionary.

I met him through Vito Russo at a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Washington, D.C. He was screening his 1983 film Abuse, and I was one of only a few women in the audience. I went in angry that it was a film about a man in authority sleeping with an abused teen. I came out with my mind blown by the complexity of what I’d seen. At the filmmakers’ brunch, Vito grabbed me and said, “Tell Artie what you really think.” I told him it was a brilliant film that made me realize not all older men who fall in love with a younger man are predators. That the story and acting made me think of Italian postwar neorealist films. Vito chimed in, “See, I told you she was great!” They were “older men,” already 40, I was in my twenties. Such praise floored me.

Chelsea was smaller in the ’80s. We ran into one another on the street, would stop for lunch or a coffee. Talk about politics, movies, lovers, life. When Artie became sick, he was determined to make Buddies. He cut the film on a flatbed in his tiny apartment. He poured his heart and soul into making one last film. After the New York premiere of Buddies, Artie threw a party and made the lasagna. I lived a few blocks away from him, and I would come get him for a walk around the block. Soon, he could only make it to the corner of 18th Street and 8th Avenue, a block from his home. He would gaze at the high-school boys and talk about the ones he fancied, and how those who were gay would have a better, freer life.

Today I watched Gay USA again after several decades. It is a marvelous film – full of pathos, humor, politics, joy and, yes, sex. Thank you, Artie. I miss you.

Greta Schiller launched her filmmaking career with Before Stonewall (1985), which won two Emmy Awards. In 2019, the film was re-released, ran in 65 cinemas, and was selected for the National Film Registry. Her other credits include the award-winning films Paris Was a Woman, International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Tiny & Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women, Escape to Life, The Man Who Drove with Mandela, I Live at Ground Zero, No Dinosaurs in Heaven, The Marion Lake Story and Bones of Contention. Schiller holds a BFA in Film/Video and a Masters in Science Education from the City College of New York which awarded her the Townsend Harris Medal for Outstanding Contributions to her Field. Her newest film is The Land of Azaba (Kino Lorber 2020), which is premiering in the Vallodolid Film Festival this fall. She is founding director of Jezebel Productions, a women’s production company since 1984.