May 12, 2003
In June 2001, I was in LA doing a play. One day, driving around in a white
rental car, I accidentally tuned in to NPR's commemoration of the 20th
anniversary of AIDS.
"At first America had trouble with People With AIDS," the announcer said.
"But they then came around."
I had long been disheartened by the false AIDS stories told in the few
mainstream representations of the crisis. Gay people are alonehurting
each other and causing our own oppressionuntil benevolent straight people
bravely overcome their predjudices to help us.
But now, that lie was being extended beyond the arts to actual history. We
were being told that AIDS Activism never existed. Instead, the dominant
culture simply "came around."
That is not what happened. I know, I was there.
As I drove, listening to the radio, I realized that in the years since I had
left ACT UP, I had seen no major history of the movement emerge. I had seen
no mainstream documentation, and that the knowledge of what we achieved was
rapidly fading from public memory.
Actually, what really took place was this: thousands of people, over many
years, dedicated their lives to achieving a cultural and scientific
transformation. In other words, a nation that had always hated and
humiliated and violated gay people, was forcedagainst their willto behave differently
than they wished to, because activists intervened and took control of a
terrible situation, thereby changing it.
I know that people with AIDS, are not just gay. But homophobia was the
prototype of the oppression that people with AIDS experienced. Active
neglect. Cruel exclusion. Dehumanizing abandonment. From friends, family,
class, job, race, neighborhood, religion, and country. Now, add history.
When I came back to NY, I did a quick survey of the academic work that had
being done on ACT UP. There was little of it. And what does exist was often
paltry, and miscomprehending. When I spoke to some of the researchers, I
realized that they did not have adequate raw data from which to understand
what had occurred. And that, sadly, many had been trained to not talk to the
actual people they were studying in order to find out what those people did.
I actually found academic work that used The New York Times as a source
about AIDS and ACT UP. It was completely self-defeating. Researchers could not
figure out how ACT UP worked, what it did, who was in it (if I saw ACT UP
referred to once more time as a white, middle-class, male organization, I
was going to lose my mind.) Most importantly, the younger researchers could not
conceptualize the level of oppression that we lived with. The cruelty that
we were subjected to, and how very very much alone we were.
I had to do something to change this.
I called Jim.
In 1986 Jim Hubbard and I said to each other "formally inventive gay and
lesbian film more accurately evokes our experiences than conventional
narrative." So, we founded the Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival,
now in its seventeenth year. We know how to get things done. Jim and I have
a successful working relationship because we each operate on the same
I tell him what I am going to do, and then I do it. He tells me what he is
going to do and then he does it. It works every time.
We had dinner and agreed that the situation of unrepresentation for ACT UP
NY could not continue. We had the responsibility and the desire to change it.
We decided to create a raw database of video interviews with surviving
members of ACT UP New York, so that they can say what they experienced and
created and how they feel about it. And that in this historical moment, in
2003, when many of us feel that we cannot make changewe can watch people
who did make change, and find out how it's done. This way, basic information
on the many many areas of activity that made up ACT UP, its structure,
strategies, subculture, its emotional style could all be articulated.
Researchers and activists interested in vaccine history would be as served
as those interested in the history of AIDS prevention for Asian gay men. People
interested in AIDS and the Catholic Church would have data, as well as
people interested in AIDS and the Black church. The social universe that ACT UP
engaged would be cumulatively available to inspire and inform the future.
We went to Urvashi Vaid, who brought us to The Ford Foundation. They gave us
funding for the project, and we started to do the interviews. One by one.
This is a long, laborious processand one of the most fascinating
emotional/intellectual experiences I have ever had. It will take us a few
years to complete this work, and I look forward to experiencing every step
of its growth and development.
Today, I was looking at one of my most beloved books Image Before My Eyes: A
Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland. The way I was raised to think
about the Holocaust: documentation, responsibility, truth-telling,
identfying perpetrators, refusing revisionism, remembering the names of the murdered,
engaging the consequences of cruelty and abandonement, the mass death
experience. All of this legacy is fundamental to my participation in this
project. And the energetic willingness of these men and women of ACT UP to
give honest, personal, detailed interviews, I think resonates with these
Here we are. Here's what we did. Here's how. Here's why. In our own words.
This project represents both a continuation and a radical shift of my work as a filmmaker.
I've been making films since 1974. In 1979, I went with my Super-8 camera to a national conference in Philadelphia to organize the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. At the beginning of the first session, there was a strident and heartfelt 45-minute debate over whether there should be pictures taken at all. On one side, were those who felt most strongly the historic nature of the meeting and wanted it documented. On the other side, were people who could lose their jobs or their children if their homosexuality became known. I immediately realized that I had to film people for whom the making of images was a life or death issue. I have been filming the lesbian and gay movement ever since.
In 1987, ACT UP emerged not only with the determination to end the AIDS crisis through non-violent civil disobedience, but also with a knowledge and understanding of the mass media that enabled a small group of people to utterly change America's view of AIDS. In 8 years, the lesbian and gay movement had gone from deathly fear to master manipulator of the media. ACT UPís remarkable success and its notable failures must be documented, explored and analyzed in all its complexity.
In late 1988 and early 1989, using a Video-8 camera I had gotten as a grant, I interviewed 7 important members of ACT UP. At that point I had 10 and half hours of videotape and the filmmaker in me said, "How am I ever going to edit all this?" Not recognizing the historical importance of simply recording the thoughts, feelings and insights of people in the moment, I stopped taping and edited the tape. This project will serve as a corrective to that early lack of understanding.
Despite this earlier venture into video, the straightforward videotaping of extended interviews utilizing a tripod-bound camera (although I am shooting with a second, hand-held camera), seems like a sharp departure from my previous work because, except for that one videotape, my work has all been in film, first in Super-8 and then in 16mm. Although I filmed demonstrations and other public events, my primary interest was never in simply documenting those happenings, but in discovering the meaning of people's participation in them. Most strikingly, perhaps, all my films are self-processed, striving for a non-naturalistic beauty and extracting a metaphoric significance from these actions.
The more we do this projectand we've now shot 14 interviewsthe more important it seems. The people we are talking to did important things and made this a better country. They are heroes of a war that, as the late Vito Russo said, was invisible to those who weren't fighting and dying in it. The purpose of this project is to ensure that their legacy remains and is properly recognized.