Jewel Thais-Williams opened the dance bar Catch One in Los Angeles in 1973. It was among the first gay venues in Los Angeles that welcomed everyone, at a time when anti-gay discrimination was rampant – doubly so if you were black.
Jewel’s story is one of tenacity – from managing a grocery store at the age of nine, to buying an entire building that became a destination club for a diverse LGBTI community and celebrities alike.
Beyond the highs and lows of the club, the documentary also explores Jewel’s commitment to her local community, and the leadership role that she played through the early stages of the AIDS epidemic.
Filmmaker C. Fitz has created a detailed and respectful celebration of a remarkable woman, helped enormously by a disco soundtrack that defined the era.
After a screening at the BFI Flare festival in London, we spoke with filmmaker C. Fitz for a behind-the-scenes look at the documentary:
You spoke at the screening about the persistence you needed in order to get Jewel Thais-Williams to agree to participate in the documentary. Did you have a back-up plan if she didn’t eventually agree?
To tell the story that I wanted to tell, it was important that Jewel be on board one hundred percent. I wanted to record her in her working environment.
She is humble about her work, so her reluctance was more a product of that. There was very little coverage of her over four decades of serving others and she was not used to being on camera while working.
However, we both knew the importance of telling this film’s story on several levels, as Jewel wants to help educate the youth of our culture. She takes her role as an educating elder and healer very seriously. We hope the film can be a type of history textbook for generations to come.
I think we both didn’t know and couldn’t have known how long a journey it would take us both to tell the story properly, as the start of the documentary’s filming in 2010 is five years before the decision to sell the Catch.
It was an honour to be trusted to tell her life story. I never gave up on the idea, but the length of filming had its challenges.
Did you grapple at all with the thought that you might be criticised as being a white filmmaker appropriating a story of LA’s black community?
I didn’t enter into doing this documentary thinking anyone would criticise me for wanting to tell Jewel’s story and saving a piece of important history in LA’s culture. Nor was I deterred along the way. I felt a deep responsibility to Jewel, her story, and our youth.
You mentioned that your initial rough-cut was very long. Did you explore the option of focusing on a specific aspect of the story of Jewel Thais-Williams, rather than trying to cover the entire lifetime of the club?
The first rough-cut was ten hours long – since it covered four decades of history of not only Catch One, Jewel’s personal story, Jewel’s Village Health Foundation, her restaurant, and all the organisations she has built and given space to on her corner, there were a lot of paints to colour with.
Part of the joy in making this film is that I got to explore how one woman could make a huge difference and impact on history. She shaped laws, changed thousands of people’s lives for the better, and helped transform politicians’ agendas by having a laser focus on serving her community.
The challenge and work came in taking this mammoth amount of footage and story and boiling it down into one film. I believe that’s why it’s such a fast 84 minutes, and it does its job by making the viewer want to learn more – because there is so much there to learn about.
I think it was important that this first single documentary be a snapshot of her whole life to show the world who she is. We are considering a part two and part three with the extra footage, but I believe we needed to show the world a full story first.
The use of music throughout the film is an effective way to evoke the era – were there any restrictions on the music that you could access for the film?
We started with a very long list of songs, as you can imagine, that needed to be whittled down to cover the four decades.
This cut that is traveling in the film festival circuit is the final true film’s version. It covers the 70s through present-day with songs from artists such as Sylvester, Thelma Houston, Thea Austin, Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, and Bonnie Pointer – who all performed at The Catch – to Andra Day’s hero tribute Rise Up, which so beautifully depicts what this woman did on a daily basis selflessly.
I was thrilled to get the songs we got, and feel this version is its own fabulous musical tribute. We are grateful to the great performers and labels, and to the artists that agreed to be interviewed for the film.
Was there any parts of the story that surprised you, or stories that were revealed that you weren’t expecting?
I was shocked when I first learned that a lot of the AIDS funding in the 80s and 90s only went to the white male AIDS victims, and rarely was it filtering to the black community. This type of discrimination was literally killing black people.
It was Jewel who stepped up in LA and helped start organisations like the Minority AIDS Project and Rue’s House, which became models to other communities across the US. Many times over the years Jewel had fundraisers at the Catch just to get the black AIDS victims any kind of relief.
Were there any challenges in creating the narrative for the film?
With the 40th anniversary, and then the sale of the Catch, the narrative of the film changed during the course of the six years. No one saw the sale coming – it was bittersweet, however on a positive, productive side, I had always wanted the clinic and Jewel’s Village Health Foundation to be a final note in the film, and now it is.
After the sale of the property, Jewel has opened a new clinic in the same neighbourhood. My focus was to show that whether she was running the club, the vegan restaurant, or working at the clinic, she is a healer at her core.
Distribution was a concern that you raised at the screening – why do you feel that this film hasn’t yet secured a distributor?
I believe we were an unexpected film on the festival circuit, and originally seen as a documentary on just a nightclub or disco, but now we have proven to be a vehicle for awareness and history.
As filmmakers and activists, there are several factors to consider when distributing a film like ours, as it covers periods in history, advocacy, human rights, decades of music, and social impact. We are starting to receive offers for many avenues – from educational, to traditional TV, to a possible theatrical release.
We are also writing, shaping, and targeting the next steps with this body of work outside of working on the distribution of the documentary. We hope to produce a scripted series, and we are working on a musical version that would utilise pieces from the film that could help tell Jewel’s story in a different format and reach an even wider audience with her life-story.
What sort of response have you had to the film so far?
Watching Jewel getting standing ovations at sold-out venues, and being celebrated by audiences from LA to London has been an amazing thing to witness.
Thanks to wonderful festivals like BFI, OutFest, Palm Springs International Film Festival, and Pan African Film Festival, we have received audience awards, nominated as Best of Fest at PSIFF, and received the NAACP seal of approval. We also have had great Q&A sessions that have turned into more of a community-talks exchange, which has been very rewarding for us.
What do you hope that audiences feel when watching this film?
By watching Jewel as an example, I hope that people are inspired to do more in their community every day, like she has in her life.