February 16, 2018

Library as Filmmaker: Documenting the Creation of a California Town’s Gay Prom

Film crew at Gay Prom 2011

Film crew at Gay Prom 2011. From left to right: Solana Brown-Chever, teen film crew & editor; Keith Wilson, technical advisor & editor; James Jermaine, teen film crew; and Rori Burns, film subject & prom attendee, 2011.

Local history projects are a popular activity in many public libraries. The Hayward Public Library in the San Francisco Bay area took their creativity to the next level and spent nearly two years making their own historical film highlighting a long-standing event for gay teens.

Now We Can Dance: The Story of the Hayward Gay Prom chronicles the 1995 creation of the gay prom and the significance of having a traditional high school dance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers. The half-hour film also shows various reactions to the annual event, which draws hundreds of students. Interviews with early prom organizers, attendees, and supportive community members were interspersed with footage from the 2011 gay prom and interviews with recent prom goers, volunteers, and even a protestor.

The Hayward librarians were inspired to create the film after the prom was briefly mentioned in another library digital video project, said Laurie Willis, the adult services and electronic services manager.

The library staff realized there was a bigger story behind the gay prom, Willis said, and they teamed up with several local teenagers to work on the film. The librarians taught the students how to shoot video with library cameras, conduct interviews and research, and do minor editing, said Willis, who directed the film and worked with co-producers Shawna Sherman and Sally Thomas, the youth services and adult services librarians. Additional assistance was provided by outside professionals, including filmmaker Debra Chasnoff, who won an Academy Award for a short documentary about General Electric and environmental pollution.

The documentary was funded by a $10,000 grant from Cal Humanities, a non-profit that promoted California cultural projects, and the Friends of the Hayward Public Library.

The film was completed in December 2012, and the premiere in Hayward City Hall drew an audience of more than 200 people. The library plans to enter the documentary into film festivals, Willis said, and they eventually want to make educational packets with copies of the film to send to other libraries and schools.

Now We Can Dance premiere postcard

Now We Can Dance premiere postcard

Sean Reinhart, the Hayward Library director, said the film does “a tremendous job” with working with local teenagers to capture the nuanced story of how the community banded together to form the gay prom and protect the prom goers from protestors and outside ostracism.

Reinhart said he was impressed with the high quality of the storytelling the teens brought to the project.

“The thing I learned the most is young people are capable of doing incredible things if you give them the tools to do it, and it can happen in an unlikely place, like a public library,” he said.

Lina Campopiano, a teenage filmmaker and a senior at Hayward High School, said she loved learning different video and interview techniques while working on the project.

Campopiano, who wants to be a social organizer, said the knowledge she gained from the project will be useful in the future. “Now every time I watch a documentary, I think of it,” Campopiano said about the filmmaking lessons. “I find it has value, and I appreciate film more.”

Campopiano, who self-identifies as queer, also said it was interesting to learn more about the history of the gay prom, and she has come to value the dance even more as a result of working on the film. “A lot of the teens (today) didn’t even know the trouble the community went through to put this together so they can have a safe place to have fun,” she said.

Willis said working on the film was a great experience and she found it interesting that the gay prom, which was a big issue back in 1995, has become a ‘”non-issue” as the greater community has become more accepting of gays and lesbians.

“In the film, we bring up the question should the gay prom continue? Do we still need it? Can people go to the regular prom?” Willis said. “The jury is still out on that question. We still get opinions on both sides of that question.”

Willis and Sherman also said it was fun to learn more about filmmaking, and they noted that it is part of a big shift for the library to move away from just being a curator of items to creating original content. “It’s like a new role for the library, as a repository for community history,” Sherman said.

Willis encouraged other libraries to pursue making films on topics that are important to their local communities, if they have the funding and support.

“It’s not the kind of thing every library can pick up and duplicate,” Willis said. “But if the library gets the chance to do a big project like this, it’s worth doing.”


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