While giving a speech at a party early in the new documentary Art and Pep, activist and Sidetrack co-owner Arthur Johnston says, "The only ones we gay people can rely on is each other."
Art and Pep depicts how Johnston and longtime partner/co-owner Pepe Pena reached that conclusion, one that is born more out of commitment to community than resentment at the world outside the LGBTQ+ community. The film traces several narrative threads: Johnston and Pena's childhoods; the beginnings of their nearly five-decade relationship; their opening of Sidetrack on North Halsted Street; and their activism around HIV/AIDS and anti-gay discrimination in the '80s and '90s.
The film debuts Thursday, Oct. 13, at 6 p.m. at AMC River East, 322 E. Illinois St., as part of the Chicago Film Festival. A second screening will take place Oct. 16 at 1 p.m. at Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.
One other threat unexpectedly reared itself as the film was in production: the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Johnston and Pena had to close Sidetrack for month. Johnston also became gravely ill from the virus.
Filmmaker Mercedes Kane, a longtime Chicagoan who now lives in Atlanta, said she was inspired to make the film after marketing executive Kevin Hauswirth, who would eventually be an executive producer on Art and Pep, told her about the couple.
"My first thought was, 'This needs to be a documentary,'" Kane recalled.
The film shows how Johnston, a former schoolteacher, met Pena when the latter was bartending and, ironically, dating another man named Arthur. In 1982, inspired by a San Francisco video bar called the Midnight Sun, they opened Sidetrack as Chicago's first video bar.
Kane documents hard challenges for the couple: vandalism against the bar, an arrest of Johnston, and an AIDS crisis that robbed Johnston and Pena of so many friends. But she also shows the triumphs in which the couple take part, among them the mobilization of the gay and lesbian community to both care for and fight for the rights of people living with AIDS, and Johnston's helping form the "Gang of Four" alongside activists Rick Garcia, Laurie Dittman and Jon-Henri Damski. That group eventually morphed into the Equality Illinois advocacy organization.
Convincing the couple to take part in Kane's project took some timeboth Johnston and Pena, despite often being in the public eye, value their privacy. "They were were definitely reluctant subjects," Kane said. But when I met with them, I was definitely able to see their love for each other. … I sort of fell in love with their love in that moment."
Kane doesn't remember a depiction of such long-lasting love between two men on any screen, she said. "There are a lot of reasons for that. One is the AIDS crisis, which prevented many of those relationships. The other is that there has not been a lot of attention given to it."
The film was shot over two years. Kane said that COVIDso difficult a hurdle for both the filmmaker and her subjectsironically allowed all involved to build an extra level of trust.
"We sort of fast-tracked that trust," Kane said.
She was present while Johnston and Pena, like all bar and restaurant owners in the city, were faced with orders to close their businesses during the pandemic.
"Sidetrack is a really big small business," Kane said. "They have 65 employees and customers who come in weekly, and some who come in daily. It was a fracturing of that community and a hardship for many people."
It took time for Pena to grow comfortable around Kane's camera, she said. While Johnston was used to being interviewed by the media, he also needed time to get used to Kane being there in their private moments.
"There was that scene where they were in bed together," Kane recalled. "They did not want to let us get that shot. They just said, 'You don't need that.' I said, 'Listen: If this were a love story between a man and a woman, these sort of intimate shots would be in the film and no one would think anything of it. If we don't include any of that, it's going to look like a purposeful decision to not include that. That's part of your love story."
After seeing the film, Johnston told Kane, "The best thing we ever did was let you into bed with us."
Art and Pep also addresses inequities disproportionately felt by transgender people of color. Kane spoke with, among numerous activists and public figures, E3 Radio's Anna DeShawn, who the audience also sees interviewing Johnston and Pena. Johnston says at one point, "There was a time when all gay people were treated the same way Black trans people are treated today."
"That year  had just so much unrest happen, and Art and Pep had been a part of that unrest for so many years," Kane said. "The community still has big fights, now more than ever. This film became even more significant politically because of everything going on right now."
She added that the film had to show that struggles against inequities were not finished, and that "there was a new generation of people who have taken the torch from Art and Pep's generation and have taken it forward in all these unique ways."
Kane said that, above all else, she "loves telling real people's stories. I say on my website that they are 'everyday exceptions'people in the community you pass by and not realize that they are doing the work to change the world around them."
She recently finished a film about historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), although she is not yet sure about its distribution.
"Living in Atlanta, there are so many HBCUs, and I was able to work with a really diverse crew there, and I learned so much. That's another thing I love about writing stories and making filmsyou learn so much about history, people and their motivations."