"Hallelujah!" Activist Catherine Gund Delivers Ron Athey to
by Aaron Krach
As an activist film and videomaker, Catherine Gund’s reputation is
firmly established. Since graduating from Brown University in 1988, she
has exhibited dozens of pieces relating to civil liberties, women’s
issues, AIDS and gay and lesbian rights. Now with the imminent release
of “Hallelujah! Ron Athey: a Story of Deliverance” she will become known
as the one who shot Ron Athey — at least conceptually. Over the past
few years she accumulated over 100 hours of footage while documenting
his career as one of America’s most intense and notorious performance
Ron Athey is an L.A. based performance artist known for weaving
religion, sex and violence into his own personal theater of cruelty —
violent yes, but also incredibly moving. Thanks to an unfortunate run-in
with the NEA, Athey and his troupe have spent the last several years
performing outside the States. His work is well known, but not actually
well seen. Gund’s film is the long awaited answer to that problem. By
patiently documenting his live performances, his work will now have the
opportunity to reach a much broader audience. And so will Gund, as she
segues from the small activist community into the independent film
world. In between taking the film to numerous festivals, Gund spoke with
indieWIRE about the film and all the special challenges it entailed.
First Run Features opens “Hallelujah” in New York and L.A. on December
indieWIRE: Your background is in activist filmmaking. How did you get
involved with Ron Athey and his underground performance scene?
Catherine Gund: I sort of backed into “Hallelujah” in a totally
pleasurable way. A good friend of mine used to perform with Ron and they
were on the way to Mexico and they wanted someone to come along and film
it. There were two reasons; one was because they needed someone to
document it, because they were doing the whole trilogy. The second
reason was because in [Part 3] Martyrs and Saints, there is all this
fine mouth piercing and what not. They knew the people in the back
wouldn’t be able to see. So they wanted someone up on stage taping it.
They then put six monitors in the back so that all the close-ups were
actually shown simultaneously in the back. . . . So we got back and I
thought this was so excellent. He thought it was really cool. And we
said maybe someday we should make a movie.
iW: But that was a couple of years ago, right?
Gund: Eventually I got really close to the group, which was helpful
because then they started to expect me to be around. Then the Estate
Project for artists living with HIV and AIDS was working with Ron to
archive all of his materials at the UCLA archive. Videos, articles about
him, articles by him, dubs from friends, they were working on this
incredible archive. To round it out they wanted to have a more
comprehensive oral history and they asked him who he wanted to do it. He
said if I’m going to talk to anyone on camera it’s gotta be Catherine.
So they called and asked me to do it and interview some of the other
performers. I said sure. At that point I said, Ron we’ve got to make a
iW: After those years how much footage had you accumulated?
Gund: We had a lot of stuff –about 101 hours including music. My editor
was working at a day job and got access to the equipment for us. And
worked for nothing.
iW: There are many ways of entering Ron’s work; via theater, sexuality,
HIV issues, power, etc. How did you connect with his work?
Gund: The AIDS thread was really important to me. That was part of why I
understood his work — why it was interesting and compelling to me. It’s
because of AIDS that his work exists. It’s not like AIDS gets tacked on.
His whole questioning of meaning and his interest and willingness to
challenge pain with pain. Obviously it didn’t originate there, that was
in the Pentecostal freak show. But I think that’s how his later work
congealed. It’s also why his later work is the most powerful. And that
is really a story about AIDS. Which is why it was so interesting to tape
in Croatia, where AIDS isn’t the thing, but they had dealt with so much
death. To them it suddenly became this universal story. Which is what I
think AIDS is. It also enlightened them about AIDS.
iW: As a performance artist who definitely pushes the envelope of
acceptability, Ron’s work is considerably marginalized. What kind of
audience are you hoping will come and see the film?
Gund: The audience for me, is those who are interested but wouldn’t take
themselves to a show. Obviously it’s for people who’ve been to a show
too, but there are only about 2000 of them around the country. There are
a lot of people who are interested in the issues and the movie brings
out the issues. It can give some meaning to what he’s doing without just
being a bloodbath. The buzz from people who’ve seen it so far has a real
appreciation for the contextualization.
iW: Noticeably absent from the film are any outside voices. The only
people talking and explaining the work are Ron and his troupe of
performers. What was you strategy behind that decision?
Gund: I don’t have any critics, or any press people or any audience
members speaking in the movie. That was so conscious because people say
things like, ‘oh man. That was so intense and all about life and death.’
First of all, it doesn’t end up all that articulate. And as a
performance artist, I wanted to play with the meaning of putting that on
film. I wanted to make it an unmediated space between the audience of
the movie and the performance work. Although you hear from other
performers you don’t hear from any other outside person.