Documenting the Documenters: More from the AIDS Activist Archive

June 5, 2010

I had the opportunity to view screeners of two new AIDS documentaries: Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto) and ACT UP New York Highlights: I (Jim Hubbard, Sarah Schulman, and James Wentzy), thanks to their distributor, Outcast Films.

While there is much to recommend each,  I am interested in focusing here on how the videos mine the AIDS activist video archive (something I’ve written about, and made videos on, elsewhere). Going against the grain of contemporary media’s fear of duration, the exposed (nothing cut-away to!) talking-head, and stylistic simplicity, ACT UP NY‘s filmmakers carefully arrange clips from the ACT UP Oral History’s hundreds of hours of oral history into two lengthy topical sections around which its diverse and erudite interviewees speak at length and with complexity. The documentary is decidedly upbeat, almost buoyant, as it focuses upon the historic (and still continuing) successes and triumphs of ACT UP: self-empowerment of gays and lesbians, re-defining healthcare politics and patients’ rights, forming strategic coalitions across outdated divides, respecting individual’s needs while framing them into larger political analyses, and most critically for me, mobilizing (and then re-mobilizing) representation. For the film reflexively re-produces (twenty years later, through its contemporary interviews that address the twenty-years past) the very AIDS activist project it tells: radicals need to document and archive their own stories so as to take power over meaning, politics, self (representation) and history.

Which is, of course, also the self-reflexive project of Sex in an Epidemic, which tells the history of the invention and ever  changing stakes of safer sex education and activism (much of it made in the form of video or its processes documented via video).  Jean Carlomusto, a doyenne of AIDS activist video, edits from (her) archival images of AIDS actions, testimonials, video actions, and completed (safer sex) videos to create a present-day history also self-reflexively focusing upon the power of self-representation for (safer sex) education and personal and community liberation. Interestingly, this documentary is more elegiac, relying, as it must on the archived testimonies of safer sex educators and activists who died of AIDS even as they fought for today’s successes (while the Oral History Project has the at least slightly more uplifting project of gathering testimony from those who lived, although of course, all of this is itself time-dependent, today’s alive are always tomorrow’s gone). This documentary takes the form of Carlomusto’s earliest activist work, often made by myself and others for GMHC’s cable access show, “Living With AIDS”: images we took (and saved) of our community (its activists and experts) and actions (unrecorded by dominant media), edited into radical accounts that educate in their time and then last for others (to be re-cycled in the name of remembering, honoring and learning).

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