This weekend, the New School and Visual AIDS presented the 3-part series: Revisiting the AIDS Crisis and the Ongoing Pandemic: Health Challenges is the 21st century. For In the Flesh, one of the organizers shares his thoughts on the kickoff event, Surviving, Uniting, Anger and the Plague: a Conversation with David France and Jim Hubbard. To learn more about the series visit: http://visualaids.org/blog/detail/revisiting-the-aids-crisis-and-the-ongoing-pandemic#.
I didn’t let my self take it in.
Last night directors Jim Hubbard (United in Anger) and David France (How To Survive A Plague) sat down to talk about their films and I all I could do was putz: put food out for the reception, collect questions for the Q & A, help get stools because the chairs we arranged were too short, check in on the overflow room, make conversation with people outside the auditorium who were to overwhelmed to sit inside, and go buy cookies out of fear we didn’t have enough food.
I couldn’t even bring myself to check twitter, where according to friends, was where the real discussion was happening.
So what did I miss?
Based on the questions people had, there are strong feelings about how race and gender were represented (or not represented) in the films, the upcoming ABC mini-series based on How To Survive A Plague, and questions both literal and not, around who owns history.
One of the only clear memories I have of the night is towards the end when moderator Tony Whitfield took a question from the audience. Abby Tallmer asked about how real lives will be portrayed in the mini – series and if the profits from the film will be shared with the families of those who have lost loved ones to AIDS.
I don’t remember the answer. Maybe there wasn’t one. Or maybe I couldn’t hear it.
As I type this 8 people are watching the recorded live stream from last night’s conversation. Soon I will join them. But I am nervous. I am 34 year old, gay, white, HIV negative cisgendered guy from northenish Canada. I came of age with AIDS, and have now spent most of my adult life working for and around people living with the virus. AIDS is how I began to understand my politics, my body, and my desires. I can trace many of my friendships back to the virus, and almost all my crushes as of late have been on people doing work in the field. Most non-fiction books I read are about the epidemic and almost all my gym shirts say AIDS on them. The history France and Hubbard represent on film is not my history. And yet it is. I don’t know what to do with this dissonance. So the idea of actually sitting down last night and listening to them was too scary. Their words held too much power. I was scared of being disappointed or angry, defensive or frustrated. I was afraid my head would explode. Or my cynicism would get the best of me and I would not be able to hear what was being said right in front of me.
So I worked. I did not listen.
But upon waking up this morning I realized I did process.
I assumed that because they were documentaries about the past that the event was going to be about history. And of course in many ways it was. But not totally. You can see last night as being about the present and how we want to see the past, and how we want to move forward.
The valid questions around the lack of representation of race, gender and sexuality, tells us possibly more about the anxiety we have now around these subjects, then what was going on ‘then’.
Fears around the mini series are as much a comment on our shared distrust of corporate media, as they are about getting the past right. Rooted in what we know, we know the film will be wrong.
In both cases—the questions and fears—indicate what people want going forward. We want AIDS work that is inclusive, and a desire to be in charge of our own stories.
In anticipation for the event I told my friend that I was nervous in an email. He wrote back, “if it is a free-for-all, it will be the most genuine account of what ACT UP was like, far more so than either of those movies.”
In the end there was no free-for-all. And maybe there should have been. Instead I felt a restrained frustration in the room, maybe a projection of my own sadness that the cannon of history is not built to house complexity, that a watered down version of what really happened, and what is happening, is what will be remembered.
Meanwhile, we are still living. AIDS activism is still occurring.
To watch Surviving, Uniting, Anger and the Plague: A Conversation with David France and Jim Hubbard, go to: http://new.livestream.com/TheNewSchool/AIDS-Crisis
Ted Kerr is an artist and writer. He is in the Riggio Writing and Democracy Program at the New School, and works with Visual AIDS.