Lining up at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival in March last year, I found myself standing behind Australian political scientist, intellectual and longtime AIDS activist Dennis Altman. I’d met Dennis earlier that summer at some events marking the fortieth anniversary of Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, his iconic book that broke new ground for sexual politics in the 1970s. Now, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, we were queuing up for the local debut of one of two documentaries at the festival addressing HIV/AIDS: Vito, an account of the life and LGBT activism of Vito Russo – a friend of Dennis and another key figure of both gay liberation and, later, AIDS activism.
As I watched Vito, I recognised some of the same archival footage and photographs I’d seen earlier in the week during the Australian premier screening of We Were Here. The film was a festival highlight, and the larger of the two ACMI theatres where it was screening was almost full, mostly with middle-aged gay men (though there were women there too, and a smattering of younger people). My boyfriend sat to my left, and on my right sat a man in his mid 60s; he sobbed quietly through much of the film.
A talking-heads doco that delicately recalls the history of San Francisco’s trajectory from free love bacchanalia to epicentre of plague, We Were Here had arrived with the buzz of a landmark in AIDS-history writing. ‘We haven’t really had a good quality historical HIV documentary for quite some time,’ Festival Director Lisa Daniel said in an overview of festival highlights.
In 2011, the HIV/AIDS epidemic turned thirty, and so did I. Coinciding with these anniversaries was a retrospective trend in documentary filmmaking, a looking-back at those so-called plague years. Perhaps those who encountered them directly, and were not in any great hurry to revisit the trauma of those years, have begun to reflect anew on what they went through during that time. Perhaps with Occupy, Obama-care and global mass protest movements in the news throughout 2011, the history of radical queer and AIDS activisms and the progressive, community-based infrastructures that emerged from and around them, had started to resonate again. Later in the year, Dennis Altman, who by that stage had become a friend of mine, told me that he’d increasingly found himself discussing this period, as well as the years preceding it, with queer people far younger than himself; people for whom his memories – including the early years of HIV/AIDS – constituted their history.
Of course, since HIV first appeared on the cultural landscape as Gay Related Immune Deficiency or GRID in 1981, people have been recording their stories. Indeed, the emergence of this mysterious disease inspired its own epidemic of storytelling. These included wildly imaginative disease origins theories and media scandals like the highly circulated myth of Patient Zero, the Canadian airline steward who supposedly ‘brought AIDS to America’. And, on a more intimate scale, accounts of living with – and dying from – HIV/AIDS, like Eric Michael’s AIDS diary, Unbecoming (1990), John Foster’s Take me to Paris, Johnny (1993) and Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters (1996), to note three Australian examples.
With the advent of antiretrovirals in 1996, the meaning of HIV shifted dramatically. While ‘epidemic’ has become ‘global pandemic’, in the lucky parts of the world where we enjoy access to these drugs, a once almost certain fatal diagnosis has become a chronic, manageable illness. One consequence of this is that stories about HIV/AIDS have moved somewhat to the margins of culture. Marking the 25th anniversary of the pandemic in 2006, Dennis Altman wrote in the Monthly that ‘AIDS has largely vanished from public consciousness, reflecting the fact that in Australia it is largely confined to homosexual men and internationally it chiefly takes its toll on the already poor and miserable.’ Five years later the title of Gail Bell’s contribution to the same publication, ‘A Quiet Anniversary: AIDS 30 Years on’, echoed this theme.
But, as young film writer Michael Scott recently wrote on his blog, The Cue Dot Confessions, the queer community and beyond seem to have collectively begun to revisit these stories:
The gay community has gone through a long negotiation process with the epidemic, something akin to six stages of grief. Now, if the number of HIV-related documentaries hitting our screens is anything to go by, we are finally taking stock (even those of us on the outside) and celebrating those that we lost – those that built the foundations of the community we have today.
The feeling of it being an AIDS history ‘moment’ was reinforced when I saw How to Survive a Plague at the Melbourne International Film Festival in July. Compiled almost entirely from home-video footage, Plague is a gritty documentary about the actions of activist groups AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Treatment Action Group (TAG) in the 1980s and 1990s. With members who were self-educated in biomedicine, virology and immunology, and in the almost equally rarefied arts of publicity, lobbying and direct action, ACT UP and TAG very publicly took on bureaucrats, government leaders and drug companies in order to get AIDS into the public dialogue, and then as a means to expedite and enhance, as well as make more transparent both research into and the clinical trialing and availability of HIV drugs.
First-time documentarian David France hunted down over 700 hours of video shot by 33 different people to create this lacerating history of the movement. It’s an extraordinary archive. AIDS activism paralleled the emerging technology of hand-held camcorders, and the protagonists of this movement were able to capture big events like the civil disobedience at Wall Street and the Stock Exchange, the shutdown of the American Food & Drug Administration, and the infamous die-ins – when thousands of protesters, including many of the sick and dying, lay down and staged mass public ‘deaths’ – from their own perspective. Incredibly, among the hours and hours of footage France also discovered one-on-one meetings with politicians, intimate confrontations with Big Pharma and the fracas and feuds within ACT UP meetings that eventually splintered the movement.
Unlike We Were Here’s broader memorialising and cathartic functions, How to Survive a Plague is the story of how AIDS activists helped bring into being the drugs that keep people alive today. What the documentary doesn’t acknowledge is that ACT UP and TAG built on earlier activism by those who very quickly established the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, or the Terrence Higgins Trust in London and the AIDS Councils of NSW and Victoria in the early 1980s. Nonetheless, the movement captured in Plague was game changing.
In an interview at the Sundance Film Festival, David France was quite explicit about his agenda for the documentary:
I want people to know that story, and to see that story in the context of the great civil liberties movements in American history and global history… It’s as revolutionary as what we saw in the civil rights movement, as what we saw in South Africa, and as what we saw recently in parts of the Arab world.
David Weissman, who produced and directed We Were Here, alongside editor and co-director Bill Weber, said similar things about his intentions. He also hopes that the film will reach younger audiences who have largely been insulated from HIV. In an interview about the making of the documentary, he said:
I think the younger generation is under the impression that there’s no problem… But also, they think that AIDS in history was just a terrible disease that washed in and that the government fixed it, without knowing what incredible, herculean efforts were necessary… It has fallen out of history, and I’m hoping that the movie helps put it back there, because it was transformative; it gave us the world we have today that we take for granted.
Last year, Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre Company announced a re-staging of Tony Kushner’s beloved AIDS epic, the play in two three-hour parts, Angels in America. In December 2012, another AIDS crisis documentary, All the Way Through Evening, hit selected Australian cinemas for a short theatrical national release (in Melbourne, however, the season was extended by popular demand).
All the Way Through Evening is an intimate film by Melbourne director Rohan Spong, teasing out the story of East Village New York – a neighborhood that lost an entire generation of artists to AIDS – through the recollections and musical rituals of eccentric pianist, Mimi Stern-Wolfe. Each year on World AIDS Day, Stern-Wolfe performs the Benson Concerts, a tribute to composer and friend Eric Benson, as well as an entire coterie of musical collaborators and friends she lost to AIDS. Spong captures Stern-Wolfe, now in her 70s, rehearsing, meandering around the East Village, yarning in her cluttered apartment and climbing what she calls ‘the mountain’ of preparation for the annual performance. The soaring, devastating ‘Walt Whitman in 1989’, by the late composer Chris De Blassio, is one of a number of her colleagues’ songs documented in the film.
All the Way Through Evening is distinct not only for being musical, and for the smaller and more idiosyncratic canvas it uses to impressionistically sketch the plague years, but because it is made by a young Australian man who wasn’t directly and personally affected by these devastating, pre-antiretrovirals years. Like me, Spong is from a generation that came of age long after the initial outbreak of HIV/AIDS. ‘I didn’t know anyone who had died and didn’t know anyone who knew anyone who had died as I was growing up,’ he said in an interview with Time Out. ‘The film is my generation trying to access that time and place, a small group of people who came and went from this one room, and now that room is empty, and the only person who’s around who remembers that room is Mimi. And she’s adamant that people remember.’
Stern-Wolfe’s yearly performances are no less a form of activism than the direct actions of ACT UP. She, too, is motivated by a desire to pass on her stories and memories of the dead: ‘I want their legacy to be remembered by the young people who live in the fast lane,’ she says, sitting in her cluttered apartment, surrounded by shelves and shelves of music recordings on old video cassettes. These recall the hours of activist footage trawled through by David France and the team that made How to Survive a Plague; Evening also meditates on our present-day encounter with that now sentimental, anachronistic technology – the video cassette – which was so culturally significant at that time. By bringing its scratchy images to the big screen alongside Stern-Wolfe’s memories Spong is participating in a passionate intergenerational dialogue between today’s young people and those of three decades ago.
In a moving essay about Holding the Man (Timothy Conigrave’s love story and AIDS memoir), memoirist and journalist Benjamin Law reflected on this kind of inter- generational dialogue. First published in 1995, on the eve of the advent of antiretrovirals and less than a year after it’s author’s death, Holding the Man steadily and quietly became a (if not the) canonical work of gay Australian writing. It was re-released as a hip Popular Penguin in 2009, having already become one of the most successful Australian stage productions of recent years. Adapted by another thirty-something gay Australian writer, Tommy Murphy, the play has been performed in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Auckland, San Francisco and London’s West End, and has hardly been off the stage since it debuted at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company in 2006. Law – who, incidentally, also recently turned thirty – identified many salient features of Conigrave’s memoir, including its cross-generational appeal, and the sense of a dialogue it created for him with a different generation of gay men. The book has become, as he says, ‘essential queer reading’.
Yet, as well as stories that resonate for new audiences, there are millions of stories that remain untold, and in both gay and global AIDS history there is a kind of amnesia that British academic and long-time AIDS cultural critic Douglas Crimp calls ‘melancholic disavowal’. American academics Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed call this phenomenon ‘traumatic unremembering’. Part of this cultural forgetting is a desire to remain unaware of, to not know about, the sublime scale of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in other parts of the world where it continues to decimate communities.
On a more local level, unremembering is also about younger queers separating themselves from their older counterparts, those from the Stonewall Generation, the AIDS Generation, and even those who inhabit the global, pink-dollar, Queer as Folk-aesthetic of the 1990s and early 2000s. ‘Don’t ask me, I flunked gay history,’ says Rupert Everett to two camp old-Hollywood queens in the appalling but weirdly enjoyable 2000 film with Madonna, The Next Best Thing. Every generation does it: casually rejecting the past while it looks toward the future. To some extent, that’s fair enough: gay history is messy, painful and contradictory. It’s a strange and deeply unresolved feeling for viewers of all ages – gay male and otherwise – to gaze at the randy, moustachioed, beautiful men of San Francisco who appear in the opening scenes of We Were Here, for example, knowing that so many of them died of a sexually transmitted disease.
There’s something of a discomfort – and something of a disconnect – between queer people of different generations. Melissa Anderson, film critic for The Village Voice, articulated this disconnect in the first line of her review of We Were Here. The film, she wrote, ‘is a sober reminder of the not-too-distant past, when gays were focused not on honeymoon plans but on keeping people alive.’ It’s a bit snarky, but it does gesture to something much bigger, more fraught and more painful that tends to crouch under the surface of these discussions. Benjamin Law identifies it in his Holding the Man essay – although in a much more reparative gesture – when, reflecting on his friendship with Dennis Altman, he writes that he ‘found [himself] thinking that it would be fair if members of [Altman’s] generation felt a howling frustration towards mine: Don’t you know what we survived?’
It’s not only that different generations of gay men have profoundly different histories and sexual coming-of- age stories from radically different times, when radically different issues were on the agenda. It’s also that the queer ‘community’ – inasmuch as that community exists – needs to invent its own rituals and infrastructures for passing on the histories of its elders. As We Were Here’s director, Weissman, explains:
In families and in ethnic groups, history is passed on from generation to generation…we don’t have that as queers, we don’t have any direct lineage from older queers to younger queers. And I think both in terms of understanding the history of the epidemic, but also just for a sense of a community and a sense of identity and a sense of self, it’s so important that generations of gay men feel comfortable – not only comfortable, but enthusiastic – about learning about each other in both directions.
In 2011, HIV notifications in Australia rose by around eight per cent, though at just over a thousand they’re still less than the national road toll. Unlike the United States, we have an impressively high rate of access to effective treatments that in most cases keep people alive and healthy for many years. Australia’s total losses to HIV/AIDS comes in at under 7000. In the rest of the world, almost that many people – around 6000-plus – die from AIDS every single day.
The almost unimaginable scale of the global epidemic doesn’t mean we should ignore the traumatic histories of people in our own communities. Even a tiny portion of that history is part of a larger cultural dialogue of mourning, memory-making, intergenerational exchange and contemporary awareness-building. There is nothing simple about tackling the uncomfortable history of AIDS; for dozens of reasons people will feel confronted by it. I don’t envy the challenges undertaken by any of these documentary filmmakers, but I’m glad they’ve felt both compelled and courageous enough to undertake them, and I’m proud to be part of the conversation.