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Que(e)ries: Why Do We Need To Watch The Second Coming of the HIV/AIDS Documentary?

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire November 30, 2012 at 2:00PM

For quite some time I've wanted to start a regular queer-themed column on Indiewire. The precursor to this idea -- at least in large part -- was written at last year's Sundance Film Festival. It was basically a personal essay reflecting on David Weissman's intensely affective documentary "We Were Here" (which had premiered at the festival) in relation to my own experiences with HIV/AIDS and the media.
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"United in Anger"
"United in Anger"

For quite some time I've wanted to start a regular queer-themed column on Indiewire. The precursor to this idea -- at least in large part -- was written at last year's Sundance Film Festival. It was basically a personal essay reflecting on David Weissman's intensely affective documentary "We Were Here" (which had premiered at the festival) in relation to my own experiences with HIV/AIDS and the media.

As that essay detailed, I come from a generation of queer men that largely found out about HIV/AIDS through the mainstream media. As a result, I had by my late teens developed a problematic, unnecessary fear of the virus (and a drastic lack of real knowledge regarding it) perpetuated by these largely ignorant media representations. But then I found my way to Gregg Araki's "The Living End," Peter Friedman and Tom Joslin's "Silverlake Life: The View From Here," Derek Jarman's "Blue," Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's "Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt," and John Greyson's "Zero Patience," among other examples.  And collectively they liberated me. And this idea -- the power of film, television and other forms of media working outside the mainstream (or occasionally and impressively within it) to produce honest and intelligent works of representation -- will clearly be a dominant focus as this column hopefully continues.

READ MORE: I Wasn't There: Sundance Doc "We Were Here" and the Importance of HIV/AIDS in Film

It also seemed that returning to this idea with respect to HIV/AIDS would make for an appropriate way to start things off. For one, tomorrow is World AIDS Day, a time for us all -- queer, straight, female, male, HIV-positive, HIV-negative -- to reflect on where our society and ourselves stand regarding HIV/AIDS.  But more over, we are coming off of a year that gave us a remarkable trio of documentaries about the virus and its history: Jeffrey Schwarz's "Vito," David France's "How To Survive a Plague" and Jim Hubbard's "United in Anger: A History of ACT UP."  Joined by the aforementioned "We Were Here," these films offer a beautiful quartet of takes on the subject that comes after a considerable absence of significant domestic HIV/AIDS representations in documentary.

Many of the films I noted earlier -- "Silverlake Life," "Blue," "Common Threads" -- were documentaries made in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a horrifyingly different context compared to today when it came to creating media about AIDS. This was filmmaking from the eye of the storm, often made by filmmakers who were unsure if they'd live to see the film's competition (Derek Jarman's died of AIDS-related complications just four months after completing "Blue").  People with HIV/AIDS were still battling a vicious, murderously ignorant government that was failing them when it came to -- among other things -- access to drugs that could save their lives. And while HIV/AIDS is by absolutely no means a problem solved, things did become a lot less immediately dire in the mid-1990s when effective drugs finally did become available and life expectancies of HIV-positive people were extended exponentially.

Peter Staley in "How To Survive a Plague"
Peter Staley in "How To Survive a Plague"

But around that time, the filmmaking also kind of stopped. Documentary or narrative, few worthy films dealing with HIV or AIDS domestically -- either from a historic or contemporary perspective -- were produced in the late 1990s or the first decade of this century.  The primary exception was actually an adaptation of a stage production from the early 1990s, so it's questionable whether it counts as a new example of representation. Either way, Mike Nichols' astonishing 2003 HBO miniseries "Angels in America," which adapted Tony Kushner's Pulitizer Prize winning play (what, did you think I was talking about the film version of "Rent"?), stands as a much different example of HIV/AIDS representation than all the other films noted here.  It was something of an anomaly, really, in the fact that it was produced within the mainstream media (although HBO is something of an anomaly in itself) and remained a wholly respectable portrayal of the virus and its history. But that's a whole other qu(e)ery.

What I've gathered from discussing the recent quartet of documentaries with their filmmakers and subjects is that emotional exhaustion played a large role as to why artists working from more direct experiences to the epidemic than, say, Mike Nichols, minimized their output in the decade and a half followed the aforementioned advances in HIV treatments.

This article is related to: Queer, How To Survive A Plague, Vito, We Were Here





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