Filmmaker Pat Nabong’s award-winning documentary uncovers a hidden piece of American LGBT history

If you give the name “Jerry Pritikin” a quick Google, you’ll find a woefully slim Wikipedia entry on his reputation as “the Bleacher Preacher,” the loving moniker a reference to his reputation as a Chicago Cubs fan. The entry does not mention his association with Harvey Milk, or his great contributions to LGBT activism as a photographer in covering the San Francisco gay rights movements.

These are the parts of Pritikin’s life that filmmaker Pat Nabong uncovers in her documentary The Unsung Photographer of the Gay Rights Movement. The six-minute film recently won a Chicago College Emmy, and yeah, it deserves the praise it’s getting, not just as a piece of history but also as a cinematic portrait of an eccentric, genuinely lovable dude. But hey, you can see for yourself by watching the film here.

We recently got a chance to talk to Pat through email about her film, Chicago, and the importance of empathy.

Under the rainbow flag: Pat initially met photographer Jerry Pritikin, the subject of her award-winning film, while she was taking photos at a Chicago park. | Photo courtesy of Pat Nabong

YOUNG STAR: How did you first hear about Jerry Pritikin? What inspired you to tell his story?

PAT: I actually met him while taking photos in a park in Chicago. He was alone, sitting on a bench, and wearing a technicolor propeller hat. I immediately wanted to take a photo of him. I actually walked away first because I was a bit shy. After circling the general area a couple of times and seeing that he was still there, I finally asked him and he said yes. He told me he took the iconic photo of Harvey Milk, a historic gay rights activist and the first openly gay politician in San Francisco. I sat down with him and he shared his condensed life story in a span of 45 minutes. When he told me he had hundreds, if not thousands, of unprinted slides of the gay rights movement, most of which are still unseen by the public, I remembered the story of the Chicago nanny and photographer Vivian Maier whose photographs were discovered in a storage facility after she died. I instantly knew I had to see those photos. He showed me some of his photographs and told me the stories behind them. When I saw how beautiful and how historically significant they were, I knew his work had to be seen.

 

There were many parallelisms between that protest and the era that Jerry documented. It shows that although we’ve come a long way since the gay rights movement in San Francisco, as Jerry said, the fight is not over and “once you come out of the closet, there’s no reason to ever go back in the closet.”

 

YS: Your documentary also tells the story of an important part of Chicago’s LGBT history. Can you tell us about your connection to the city of Chicago?

P: I moved to Chicago in June 2016 to start my master’s in journalism at the Medill School of journalism in Northwestern University. I’ve moved to Washington, D.C. for an investigative journalism fellowship since graduating, but I’m still very much connected to Chicago because of how much I’ve grown as a journalist and as a person there. In Chicago, I met mentors in the industry, broke out of my shell, and learned how to scour the streets for untold stories and approach them in different ways.

History lesson: One of the challenges of creating historical documentaries is how to make something that happened in the past still relevant and immediate today. | Photo courtesy of Pat Nabong

YS: The documentary as a form seems to hold a lot of power in terms of salvaging forgotten parts of history and rewriting dominant narratives. Was that something you kept in mind while filming?

P: Definitely. One of the challenges of creating historical documentaries is how to make something that happened in the past still relevant and immediate today. When that film was made in early 2016, a lot was happening. Trump had just taken his seat at the White House and many minority groups, including LGBTs, were feeling attacked by his policies and his sentiments. Coincidentally, an LGBT protest was happening in Chicago, which is a scene that made it into the film. There were many parallelisms between that protest and the era that Jerry documented. It shows that although we’ve come a long way since the gay rights movement in San Francisco, as Jerry said, the fight is not over and “once you come out of the closet, there’s no reason to ever go back in the closet.”

 

Nothing has been more fulfilling, surprising and inspiring than knowing that the stranger next to you actually has a story to tell.

 

YS: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers, especially those interested in making documentaries?

P: Talk to people. I’ve always been a shy person, but because of my job, I’ve had to break out of my shell and talk to strangers. Nothing has been more fulfilling, surprising and inspiring than knowing that the stranger next to you actually has a story to tell. I’ve always believed that everyone has a story that can make a difference. All you have to do is start the conversation. But what’s more important than merely talking to people is empathizing with them. During the Chicago Emmy awards night, one of the journalists who won an Emmy said, “Tell the story, feel it, and it will make a difference.”

 

You can find out more about Pat Nabong on her official website.

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#gender #photography

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