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Epstein, Rob (b. 1955)  
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Writer, director, and producer Rob Epstein is one of the most accomplished filmmakers working today. He has been involved in the creation of such groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed glbtq documentaries as Word Is Out, The Times of Harvey Milk, Common Threads, The Celluloid Closet, and Paragraph 175, as well as the full-length feature film Howl.

Epstein was born on April 6, 1955, in New Jersey.

His filmmaking career began when, as a 19-year-old college dropout, he responded to an ad in a San Francisco weekly alternative newspaper for "a non-sexist person to work on a documentary film on gay life."

That documentary would ultimately become the landmark film Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, released in 1977.

The project was initiated five years earlier by the visionary documentarian Peter Adair (1943-1996) who began to film interviews with his friends about their experiences as gay men and women. Realizing these interviews could be expanded into a full-length documentary, Adair brought his sister Nancy into the project, along with four other filmmakers, including Epstein. All six members of the team ultimately shared directing credit as the Mariposa Film Group.

In total, over 200 interviews were conducted; eventually, the filmmakers narrowed the focus of the documentary to twenty-six people, ranging in ages from 18 to 77, and encompassing a wide range of life experiences. The conversations were divided into three broad topics--recollections of hard times past, coming-out stories, and hopes for the future--with an emphasis on personal experiences rather than political ideologies. The resulting interviews were then interwoven to create a rich tapestry of gay and lesbian life in the United States.

Word Is Out premiered at the Castro Theatre in the heart of San Francisco's gay neighborhood in November 1977. The documentary received enthusiastic reviews for its realistic and honest depictions of gay people.

The documentary was also broadcast in 1978 on several local Public Broadcasting (PBS) television stations.

Within months of its debut, the Mariposa Film Group began receiving thousands of letters from gay men and women thanking the directors for making such a courageous film, and in some cases, crediting Word Is Out for saving their lives simply by showing positive images of homosexuals in stark contrast to the negative stereotypes then prevalent in mainstream entertainment.

In 2008, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation undertook a restoration of the original 16-millimeter color negatives and audio recordings. The restored version again premiered at the Castro Theatre in June 2008 as part of the Frameline Film Festival and a DVD was released with updates on the cast and filmmakers.

Upon the film's re-release, the critic Melissa Anderson noted in The Village Voice that the film "was a revelation 32 years ago and still enormously powerful today."

Epstein's next project was the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which he directed, as well as co-wrote (with Judith Coburn and Carter Wilson) and co-produced (with Richard Schmiechen).

The documentary focuses on the charismatic and savvy Harvey Milk, self-proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street," who became the first openly gay man to be elected to a public office in the United States when he successfully won a seat on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977.

Epstein originally had planned to focus his film on Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, a referendum that would have banned gay men and lesbians from teaching in California public schools, and Milk's tireless involvement in its ultimate defeat.

However, only eleven months into Milk's term, and while Epstein was still in the research phase of the project, Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were shot to death in City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White. White was later convicted of manslaughter and received a scant seven-year sentence, an outrage that sparked riots throughout the city.

Epstein promptly decided to expand the project into a full-length documentary about Milk himself.

Narrated by the actor Harvey Fierstein, the documentary comprises television news footage sketching the political careers of Milk, Moscone, and White, intercut with personal reflections of several of Milk's friends and colleagues, including a union leader who admits that he was prejudiced against homosexuals for a long time, and even condoned violence against them, until he met Milk who helped break down his preconceptions.

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Rob Epstein. Image courtesy
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