In 1982, Art Johnston and Pepe Peña opened a little bar called Sidetrack in the North Side neighborhood of Northalsted (colloquially known then as Boystown). Sidetrack became a mecca of gay life in the city, as well as a hub for political action, as Johnston and Peña spent decades fighting for queer issues from HIV/AIDS to gay marriage. The couple’s story, tied inextricably to Sidetrack and the movement for queer rights in Chicago, is the subject of director Mercedes Kane’s documentary Art and Pep, premiering at the Chicago International Film Festival (October 12–23).
We spoke with Kane about Johnston and Peña’s role in queer history and the importance of telling their uniquely Chicago story.
Q: Why make this documentary?
A: Everyone in Chicago knows about Sidetrack, but they don’t know Art and Pep’s story, and the essential work for the movement they’d done from there. I’d started the doc as a story about them. But when COVID hit and Sidetrack shut down, I recognized the parallels between [this pandemic] and the AIDS crisis, and the impact Sidetrack’s closing had on the community. Those became a central part of the film.
Q: How did you want to depict Chicago’s role in queer history?
A: The story of LGBTQ rights has been told mostly on the coasts. But the work being done in Chicago is just as important, if not more so, since we’re a bit of an island for queer people in the Midwest. A lot of Sidetrack regulars we interviewed come from small towns in Indiana and Michigan, where they knew no one like them. Coming to Northalsted changed their lives.
Q: What’s one thing you want audiences to take away?
A: Ultimately, Art and Pep is a love story for both these two men spending their lives together, and a community fighting to love and live freely.
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