Saturday, August 24, 2013

Documentary Filmmaker Sheri Wright: Tracking Fire

Christal Cooper – 1,794 Words
Facebook @ Christal Ann Rice Cooper

Filmmaker Sheri Wright:
Tracking Fire
Sheri L. Wright is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the arts:  poet, writer, photographer, editor, workshop leader, radio producer, book cover artist, and now documentary filmmaker.  She is scheduled to begin filming her documentary film Tracking Fire this fall.  It wasn’t until she started this venture that she finally felt she was doing what the universe intended for her to do all along.

“Everything I have done, especially for the past 10 years, I’ve been able to utilize to make this film.  I was made to make this film, do something that was more than about me.  There are other things I’ve done that were wonderful and I am so glad I was able to do those things, but this film seems more in the realm of doing what I needed to do.” 

In 1969, Wright was eight years old, sitting in the back of the family car, a Dodge Dart, with her four younger siblings, her stepfather at the wheel, her mother in the passenger side, driving through Arizona, toward California.  Everything they owned was on a small flatbed trailer attached to the car, covered in plastic sheets. 

“We were driving in the desert and it was in the afternoon and we were hot and sleepy and no one was looking at anything.  We were just wondering, are we there yet?”

Her stepfather was a cigarette smoker and liked to smoke in the car, making it a practice to toss his finished cigarette outside his window.  Unfortunately, the cigarette landed in the flatbed trailer.

The family continued their sluggish drive down Highway 171 and were alarmed when they heard the honking of a horn, two men pulled up beside them in a truck, yelling and pointing to the back of the car.  
“We looked and there were these flames just billowing along.  My stepfather pulls the car over and we are stationery allowing the flames to come closer to us and he jumps out of the car, thinks he unhinges it and we take off.  He had panicked and it wasn’t unhinged.  The fire is bigger now.  We are driving and thinking we are going to blow up.”

Fortunately her stepfather managed to stop the car, unhitched it correctly and immediately pulled away.
“We watched everything we owned burn.  We thought we were going to die.  I know that feeling of fear of dying by flames.”

Five years later, on June 24, 1973, another fire occurred on the second floor of the three-story building at 141 Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. 
        The Upstairs Fire, as it came to be known, was different from the fire Wright and her family experienced.  The Upstairs Fire was an arson resulting in the murders of 32 individuals. 

What makes this case so unusual is that even though it was murder by arson – the consensus of the community and authority was that it wasn’t a murder of 32 human beings, but only arson.
It can be assumed that one of the reasons this was not perceived as a mass murder was due to the sexual orientation of its victims – all 31 men were homosexual and the other victim was a mother who supported her two gay sons. This could explain why even today the case is not known either in the LBGT community, the criminal justice community, or any community at all.

         At the time Wright was twelve years old living in Southern Indiana listening to Uriah Heep’s Demons and Wizards; and nagged by a premonition that she was destined for something meaningful – she just didn’t know what and she wouldn’t know until almost 40 years later.  

         On September 19, 2012, Wright sat in front of her televising set to watch the acclaimed series Ghost Hunters – about ghost hunters who try to connect with the spirits, usually spirits who have endured horrendous events and “haunt” the place in which the horrendous event occurred.

For that night’s episode the ghost hunters were trying to communicate with spirits that inhabited some buildings in New Orleans, the same building in which arson occurred in June 23, 1973, resulting in the murders of 31 men, and one woman.              

      “When I saw that episode, I wanted to know more because I had never heard about that.  And such a deadly fire - 32 people, 31 men and one woman who supported her two gay sons, who was not even mentioned on the show.  That didn’t set well for me either.  I wanted to acknowledge that there is a woman and I wanted to acknowledge these victims and the survivors.  It must have been horrendous.  The survivors had to have survival guilt, along with bearing the pain and loosing those people they were close to.  I wanted to tell their story until it became common knowledge in everybody’s community.”

         Wright began her intense research and within two weeks decided that a documentary film should be done on the tragedy and contacted a friend who is a documentary filmmaker. 

         “She said she didn’t have the time and suggested that I do it.  What the hell did I know about doing a film?  She encouraged me and felt that I could indeed do this.  I didn’t know at the time that anyone had even written a book about this.  I felt it was my responsibility to help ensure that this was known and acknowledge all of these people involved.”

Wright delved into the first step of every documentary – that of research; talking with people, networking with people, sending out queries, watching film clips and news footage, looking at disturbing photographs, and reading all that she could find on the subject.  
As with any other project, everything starts in her head.  She had a visual storyboard in her head of how she wanted the documentary film to be - artistic and creative. 

         “It’s like story telling or writing a poem.  With writing a poem, you can write about horrible, dark things but it can be beautifully and artfully done in order to make it more digestible for the reader.  It’s hard to hear about child abuse but if you tell the story in a way that it will draw the audience in, that will allow them to listen to it, and not be overwhelmed with this darkness.  This is gruesome, brutal, and heart wrenching and (making it artistic) will help make the presentation better for the audience.  That is how I do things – you add an element of art in the telling of the story and also incorporate the facts, interviews, and news footage.  When a documentary is more creative, the truth rises above everything.  And that is doing an art form justice and also honoring the viewer or and reader.”
She also utilized her knowledge that she gained taking a class on indie filmmaking; more importantly she recognized that she needed help and the expertise from other artists.  As a result she has several experienced filmmakers on board as advisors to the film. 
Wright is releasing a book and a soundtrack album in addition to the documentary film. 
“Poetry is pretty close to music and I know lots of musicians through collaborations at literary venues. So, I have hired local musicians and bands to participate for the soundtrack.”

The next step is perhaps the hardest:  Wright has to figure out a way to take all of the materials collected and compress it down into how it sits into a one-hour visual presentation. Luckily, all of that has been completed. 
“One stance I’ve taken as producer and director is to surround myself with professionals and let them do their job.  As a result, pretty much everything is in place:  film crew, musicians, someone to do the score, and all the other required elements.”
         Poets W. Loran Smith and Aletha Fields will perform their poetry in the film; award-winner Beth Edwards is the cinematographer; most of the music has been completed; some is still in progress.  She believes it is important to be spontaneous and willing to change, even in the middle of a project. 

         “If someone who was well-known approached me about being part of the project, I would certainly welcome it.  I’m all for spontaneity and keeping things very flexible.”

         All that is left to be done is the actual filming of the documentary, which will take place in New Orleans, Louisiana within the September to November time frame; but that is only if Wright receives enough funds to pay for the filming. 

         Wright has already benefited from the generosity of others via funds, donations of talent, encouragement, and the sharing of resources.
“Everybody wants to ensure that this is known.  The egos are put aside.  I’m very fortunate that folks are feeling this way.  No one is being stingy and unwilling to share.  We all have an interest in doing the right thing.  Johnny Townsend (author of Let The Faggots Burn:  The Upstairs Lounge Fire) is the first one to get on the roll with this and he has been very generous about sharing his information, providing contacts, suggestions, and resources.  He feels just as strongly that this needs to be known and he went about doing it.  Hats off to his perseverance to getting this book known.”

Even though no one has ever been charged for the mass-murder by arson, those who are aware of the case believe that a strong suspect in the case is Rodger Dale Nunez, who had been kicked out of the bar the night the fire occurred.  The fire was concluded to be arson due to an empty can of lighter fluid on the stairs as well as other evidence. 

         There are numerous reasons why the community and government at the time did not want this murder by arson to become known and spread throughout the community – the victims were homosexuals, and greed.
         “The gay bars were huge tourist attractions at that time.  It was the tourism department who wanted all of this to go away because it was all about money.  They wanted the tourists to continue to go to gay bars.  The police didn’t care because it was a bunch of gays.  The city wanted it to go away.”

Wright’s mission is that this tragedy and the lives of those lost will be made known to all communities around the world. 
“That’s another thing I hope to do in this film is to connect people – everyone, because these were human beings.”
She also will offer this film to schools, universities, and organizations for educational and historical purposes.  

Wright is a non-profit, through her fiscal agent of Louisville Visual Arts.  To make a tax-deductable donation, for more information or to connect with Wright visit her website at


Photo 1, Photo 3, Photo 9, Photo 10,  Photos 14 - 19, 
Sheri L. Wright.  Copyright by Sheri L. Wright. 

Photos 2 and 27.
Tracking Fire film logo.

Photo 4.
1969 Dodge Dart.  Public Domain.

Photo 5.  
Pune, India Highway.  Attributed to Sohan Beanerjee.  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 

Photo 6.
Unfiltered brand cigarettes from Germany.  GNU Free Documentation License.  and Creative 
Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported. 

Photo 7.
A car on fire in Pasadena, California.  Attributed to Aaron Logan.  Creative Commons 
Attribution 1.0 Generic.

Photo 8.  
Sheri Wright at age 10.  Copyright by Sheri L. Wright.

Photo 11.
Uriah Heep.  Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 12.
Demons and Wizards album cover.  Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 13.
Ghost Hunters Program's Logo.  Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 20.
W. Loran Smith.  Copyright by W. Loran Smith.

Photos 21 and 22.
Beth Edwards (  Copyright by Beth Edwards.

Photo 23.
Let The Faggots Burn:  The Upstairs Lounge Fire jacket cover.

Photo 24.
Johnny Townsend.  Copyright by Johnny Townsend. 

Photo 25.
Lighter Fluid.

Photo 26.
Sidewalk memorial plaque outside of the building that burned.  The plaque lists the 32 names of 
the individuals killed in the fire. 

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