April 14, 2017
Emerson College professor Paul Mihailidis says: “We’ve seen again and again that just throwing tools at things doesn’t solve problems. How many tools and guides and kits to fake news have there been now that don’t get into where the origination of the problem really lies? There’s this ‘solutionism’ happening that doesn’t identify the core problems … Our Engagement Lab is a group of scholars interested in doing applied research and creating knowledge out of intervention, still staying true to academic method and theoretical grounding but being able to look at research with communities and in partnership with communities” News and media literacy the way it’s always been taught may not be the right response to fake news woes, Shan Wang
“Resistance School is a free four session practical training program to sharpen the tools we need to fight for our values at the federal, state, and local levels. Our goal is to keep the embers of resistance alive through concrete learning, community engagement, and forward-looking action. A syllabus you’ll actually read, the opening session of Resistance School dives into the steps necessary for engaging in effective communication for change by building on history, exploring the tools of value-based communication, and ultimately reviewing the most meaningful ways to enact this change in the world around us.”
“Corporate Universities and Corporate Museums have never been places of Free Speech. They have always curtailed opinion—because they are the private sector, indebted to corporate agreement … If we allow our confusions about Corporate and Public Opinion and Fake News to destroy our demand for open expression, the Palestine Solidarity Movement will be our next casualty. The people who ultimately suffer from the repression of painful Opinion are not the elite but, in fact, the powerless.” Open Casket, Sarah Schulman
#fakenews was never really the problem, just as quick fixes, tools-at-hand, or even a pillar of wisdom (or confusion) can never really be the solution. The internet is our condition: one of skepticism, bounty, expression, art, corporate control and structuring falsities. The internet is our condition of violence, our condition of power, and a place of resistance. It and we aren’t going anywhere … yet.
At #88, immersed in the rousing, thoughtful projects, labs, analyses, schools, art works, and voices that I’ve collected thus far on my path to #100hardtruths to better understand #fakenews, I begin to see a framework for questions rather than a set of ready answers:
- Where are our cherished sites for learning about, making, and sharing values-based communication?
- How deep must we go?
- What are the qualities of duration necessary to sustain our work?
- What or who are we trying to fix or resist?
- Who are our people?
- Where lies our power?
- How can technology sustain us?
It is my sense that such questions need to be answered in communities of care and practice.
July 13, 2015
After seeing Jason and Shirley (Stephen Winter, 2015) this weekend at Outfest, I am moved to respond here to Milestone Film & Video‘s recent and scathing critique of the film Jason and Shirley,” The Cruelty and Irresponsibility of Satire“ (re-printed on Indiewire on June 23 by Sydney Levine). In their take-down, the authors (who are distributors of many of Shirley Clarke’s films, and more critically the producers of “Project Shirley” an “ongoing commitment to learn everything about Clarke as a director, an artist and a person”) pillory Winter’s film for two main reasons: the “film’s inaccurate and simplistic portrayals of a brilliant filmmaker and her charismatic subject.” Here, I would like to express another reading of Jason and Shirley, a remarkable, complex and important film, while also addressing what I see as Milestone’s misplaced (if perhaps also sometimes true) ire and criticism. I also invite Milestone, and others who are devoted to Clarke’s work and legacy, to reconsider the important contribution this new film makes towards this worthy end.
Before I commence, let me express that I am not only one of these supporters of Shirley Clarke, but also a fan and a scholar of Milestone’s and Winter’s work (and also that of Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters, who co-wrote and star in Jason and Shirley). Perhaps most critically, I am a fan and scholar of Portrait of Jason, as well as the cinematic traditions in which it sits (documentary film, women’s and feminist cinema, queer film, and black queer cinema). For example, I joyously and with great appreciation went to the West Coast Restoration Premiere of Portrait of Jason where evidence of Milestone’s Amy Heller and Dennis Doros’ invaluable work on Project Shirley was applauded by an audience of cineastes, most of whom I’d warrant knew little of the work of Clarke or her masterpiece, Jason, given that this serious study of power, documentary, identity, and cruelty was made by a woman and featured a black gay man. I commend and support Milestone’s project of unearthing and sharing materials for scholars, teachers, and fans of Clarke, and also acknowledge and salute their under-sung role as distributors of avant-garde, experimental, and independent cinema, including the work of female film directors, like Clarke and others whose voices and vision would otherwise fall outside the scope of accessible media culture.
At the same time, I am also a supporter of Stephen Winter‘s work. I first became familiar with his brilliant and irreverent artistry when I saw his important and also under-sung contribution to independent queer cinema, Chocolate Babies (1997). As myself a scholar and maker of AIDS media, and the producer of The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye 1996), the first African-American lesbian feature film, I knew about the glaring and damaging under-representation of black queer Americans, about the obstacles to entry for films about and from this perspective, and perhaps as critically, the haunting burden for most artists in such a terrain to make and share “positive images” of their under-represented community. I learned from and supported Chocolate Babies (and The Watermelon Woman, for that matter), because these feature films, made with almost no institutional support and certainly less cultural sanction, dared to imagine that the lived experience of black queer Americans was complex, riddled with contradiction, full of delight, pain, community, love and loss, and was thus the perfect subject for serious, artful, complex cinema. Just as was true for Portrait of Jason (made by one of America’s great women filmmakers who also refused to bow to the “positive image paradigm”) and for her brave and creative documentary subject, Jason Holliday (née Aaron Payne).
I mark the similarities between these film oeuvres and the careers of their makers and the needs of their audiences because this post speaks most centrally as an attempt for reconciliation across what has currently been created as “camps” by the Milestone team. In a cinematic landscape where a small number of us make, support, appreciate and need serious artistry that represents the “marginal” experiences of our society from a sophisticated, complex, and nuanced perspective, a landscape where such work is under-funded, under-seen, and under-valued, it serves none of us well to use our very limited cultural resources against, rather than in support of each other, even if, and perhaps because our work dares to imagine life on the outskirts of American society as itself complicated, multiple, and sometimes in internal debate about the very values of the oppressed, marginal, radical, political and creative people who co-populate it (see my earlier post “Against Gamification,” in that case about the pitting of the the black-lesbian artistic sub-culture against itself in the name of a funding “game”).
Shirley and Jason is a complicated, sometimes messy, meditation on what I just described: the circulation of power, honesty, cruelty, love, debate, and creativity that defines artistic community and radical culture. Shirley and Jason also marks, honors, and challenges the role that cinematic evidence (in this case documentary) plays in the psychic, political, and cultural lives of culturally marginalized people, which is to say that as women, people of color, and queers until quite recently we had little to no access to records of our past struggles, ideas, daily practices, or visions of artistry because much too little was made, and what was made was almost never saved. This is one of the prime subjects of The Watermelon Woman, where we had to fake an archive of images of what was once true (the lives of African American lesbians) so that the main character, Cheryl, could learn and grow from her hidden, absent, but true legacy.
In his case, one might say that Winter was lucky, he had footage of Jason, an out black gay man, due to the perspicacity of Clarke and Holiday. Portrait of Jason is the first and continues to be one of the only films, in cinema’s history, to document as central the “struggles, ideas, daily practices and visions of artistry” of a black gay man. But anyone who loves this documentary as do I, as does Milestone film, and does Winter and his entire team, realizes that Portrait of Jason is nothing like a simple documentary record of anything. Using this film “footage” as a starting point for cultural recovery, community empowerment, or even the “truth” of African-American gay male experience or history pre-Stonewall is basically an impossibility given that, in my interpretation at least, a “truthful” rendering of any of these subjects was never the intent of this brilliant film or its equally brilliant filmmaker. Rather, Shirley Clarke intellectually and creatively wrangles with Jason for control over the power of cinema to save any of us: emotionally, historically, creatively. She asks us to consider whether documentary truth is possible, and she chooses Jason Holliday as her worthy interlocutor, subject, and collaborator, given how well he struggles at, and sometimes succeeds, at never giving her this “truth,” perhaps not his to give, and certainly not hers to take. In this way, not a salvage project, or even a portrait per se, I see Jason (and Jason) as the cinema’s finest study and criticism of the ethics, possibility, and veracity of documentary power as it is connected to its ongoing interest in “truth,” especially as embodied by disenfranchised subjects, doubly disempowered as they must be by the documentary project itself.
The film, radically for its time, and for documentary more generally, is made from the position that many of us share—we the usual documentary-subject: the weak, the woman, the other. As a rare, empowered, powerful woman behind her documentary camera and film (Clarke is one of a tiny handful of women who directed cinema before the movements for social justice of the late 60s and early 70s began a slow, but still unfulfilled sea-change), Clarke asks us to see (by hearing) the brutality, love, empathy, and control that organizes the documentary encounter. With clarity, bravery, calculation, and intelligence she plays the role of the one who needs to know and show and own another; with clarity, bravery, calculation and intelligence she leaves in her voice and other cinematic indications of her hand and her control. She is strong enough to show us the brutality of this desire to know, and save, through cinema (usually masked as it is as a project of sentimental salvation). Of course, she comes to this encounter both empowered by her brilliant mind, inestimable film chops, and also economic privilege, while also saddled by her gender and ethnicity in 1960s America. She controls the camera, the image, the editing, and the organizing vision of the encounter that follows. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, she chooses as her collaborator an almost-equal (who is lower than a white, Jewish woman in the 1960s America? not many, but certainly a black gay man might be). But Jason Holliday is no dupe. No chump. No simple documentary subject. Like every subject of the documentary camera before him (we women, and queers, and people of color, we ethnics and natives; all we others) he has his wits, his self, and his performance to empower him and he is better at this then most in his position. He can and does dodge, dazzle, hide, reveal, provoke, wow, and fall apart, it seems, at will (although Clarke’s overt and thematic use of drugs and alcohol to phase him becomes part of the film’s dark current of abuse). For those of us who study and admire this work not solely as the rare depiction it is of black gay life, one artistic and powerful women’s drive and vision, avant-garde New York in the sixties, cross-racial and cross-gender interaction and community within bohemian counter-culture, but also as one of cinema’s outstanding studies of the power and cruelty of documentary cinema itself, I suggest Winter and his collaborative team weren’t so much “lucky” to have this as his sole piece of documentary evidence, as perhaps provoked, or perplexed, or maybe just aroused albeit in pain (Aaron Payne).
And here’s where Milestone’s critique should indeed simply become a celebration or at least a more serious consideration. Winter et. al., continue Clarke’s radical, seminal documentary project by “re-imagining” the shooting of her radical, experimental film from the point of view Jason. Not a documentary, never needing to stand up to documentary’s ethical or truth imperatives, their “re-imagination” of one of documentary cinema’s great studies of power and privilege does so from the vantage of Clarke’s strong, beautiful, imaginative contender who by definition had less power in the constituent and complex dynamic that ever unrolls between documentary filmmaker and subject. Given that no documentary subject, even one as mighty as Jason, can ultimately usurp the documentary-maker, who cuts the final film, who organizes its every frame, one place for the empowerment of the structurally disenfranchised is in fiction filmmaking. And here, Winter’s vision both soars and digs very low (as did the original Jason). In musical numbers and other dream sequences we are offered Jason’s interiority (always invisible to the documentary-maker, to our chagrin). Here Winter, and the magnificent, talented, sensitive Waters, playing Jason, show us Jason’s version and vision of the unleashing of brutal, if always loving and self-aware power (so much like Shirley’s) as we see his encounters with one of the white women for whom he whored, one of the white boys whom he loved, with his Mother who loved him, and his dealer who takes painful control of him. We see his unadulterated talent and crushingly unrealized desires. We see how race, sexuality, drugs, and self-loathing hamper Jason. We see the world from the position of the empowered, suffering, loving, living outsider.
Milestone condemns Winter for a “lack of integrity” in his depiction of Shirley Clarke, as well as a lack of “understanding of humanity, and love for cinema.” They call him out for not researching properly, not interviewing living participants of the original film shoot, not being kind to Shirley or her daughter Wendy (herself a brilliant and under-sung Los Angeles artist whose work plays a central role in the history of feminist, activist video; her amazing “Love Tapes” are a must-see for all interested in video art). I imagine these criticisms might all be true, especially if you knew and loved Shirley; especially if you are invested in finding, making, and sharing documentary evidence of Clarke’s career and life. Shirley and Jason is not particularly kind to Clarke (but I never thought the original was either, as I’ve indicated above). And it’s not so nice to Jason either. Neither films are a kindness project: “truth,” pain, power, love … sure.
However, I hope I have established that such criticisms are incidental to the mightier and divergent aims of Shirley and Jason: to unflinchingly account for the pain, beauty and power of being forced to take the role of the (documentary) victim regardless of ones beauty, strength, creativity or intellect. The “genuine” “inner truth” represented in this complex and masterful fiction film does not revolve around the accuracy of the “facts” of Shirley and Jason’s lives and works (although I do hope Winter will correct some of the inter-titles which Milestone has established as incorrect, most critically to my mind, that Clarke’s lover and collaborator Carl Lee died of AIDS not a heroine overdose). Instead Winter and his teams’ film should be appreciated for its subtle, painful, knowing and loving incantation of a state we all can identify with at times, the state of Jason.
I use my contribution to the debate to invite Heller, Doros, and all fans, friends, and lovers of Clarke (and experimental documentary) to receive this contemporary theatrical fiction film, Jason and Shirley, as a new and necessary contribution to a conversation about women’s artistic possibility, documentary ethics and power, and their relations to cinematic form and style, from the point of black gay men who are our allies. In their “pretending to know what happened,” Winter et. al. do create “their own ‘Shirley Clarke,’ ‘Carl Lee,’ and ‘Jason Holliday'” (as did the “real” Shirley, Carl and Jason so many years before!) as Milestone censures. But rather than seeing this as a disrespectful and dishonest creation, I ask viewers to attempt to understand the profound integrity of these new portraits and how they assist us in a worthy project allowed by the best of cinema: less one of facts and more one of feelings, less one of honesty and more one of the uses and abuses of honesty, in the name of art, that have both hindered and set free the Jason in us all.
October 6, 2013
No matter how you count it, a lot of people contributed to this daunting, humbling, and ultimately victorious effort (and are now sharing the above-depicted relief and joy): hundreds of thousands of people helped (149,702 signed the Change.org petition), multitudes marched, protested, made buttons and artwork, hundreds worked tirelessly behind the scenes to locate or create press …
I could go on and on. And there’s good reason to do so: change occurs when people make it, piece by piece, little and big, and it’s not just crucial to name this to thank them (although that is important, and I’m doing a bit of that here), but to understand how successful organizing works. Here’s my friend and comrade, Matias Viegener, on our local TV station. It took many of us many days to get this small, and almost silly end result. (At the time, we wondered if it was worth it; my sister, Antonia, contributed a lot towards what ended up being seen as only this one segment)
It truly was a family, and also a community affair. A core group of Canadians (the Canadian “A team,” led by friend and fellow professor, Justin Podur, sister Cecelia Greyson, other family members and close friends, like Elle Flanders) was joined by scores of Canadian and international friends, colleagues, activists, and comrades. Very few of us had ever worked on a political campaign of this sort—life and death, international intrigue (although one of the behind the scenes projects was to get in contact with people who had; many of us contacted friends, and friends of friends, who worked at the State Department, consulates around the world, Amnesty International; man, you wouldn’t imagine the kinds of conversations film critic, B. Ruby Rich was having off the record). However, most of us who lent a hand, big or small, knew of either John or Tarek through earlier shared projects of activism and cultural politics (John programmed my first AIDS activist video into his seminal collection, Video Against AIDS, made in 1989 for Video Data Bank). With hind sight (given that it worked), it was stunning, and deeply moving, and just plain awe-inspiring, really, each day to see the collective knowledge, skills, and power of this diverse, eclectic, and ragamuffin group go at it, wherever we were, however we could:
But to be honest, there was also something deeply painful, knowing each day, and after every act by which we used all of our highly dispersed and cunningly eccentric cultural capital (and its associated real-world political power) that there were so many others in that very prison, or elsewhere in another prison, who do not and will not ever have such powerful, connected, capable friends and allies; their crimes no more real, their imprisonment no less unjust …
Their less heard stories, and unknown humiliations, will always haunt my memories of these many days and actions.
After much celebration, and its associated sadness, fear, and introspection, I’ll also continue to think about how both my queer/ documentary/activist/scholarly film community and our use of social media played an impotant, complex, and contributing role to this highly successful effort, given that this is something I study, engage in, and often criticize. This is where my subtitle comes in. In the last days of the effort, I was working closely with Jonathan Kahana, Shannon Kelley (from the UCLA Film Archive), and many other film profs, curators, programmers (like Jenni Olson and KP Pepe), to organize a Day of International Screenings for John and Tarek. We decided to organize on Facebook (because it was there, and easy, and so many of us had met on it, even though I have quite recently written about the most progressive act being LEAVING Facebook and other corporate-owned platforms that we get for free but that limit our abilities in their very structures). Within a day of setting up a Group we had over 100 members, and Matt Soar, Communications Prof. at Concordia College (who I met in real-time during this effort online) had designed the poster below for our effort (Chris Durrant, Out Twin Cities Film Festival Director, made the first effort within just a few short hours of the group’s formation):
I felt both really humbled and really frustrated working on this effort via Facebook. Online, via Facebook, we moved this idea so quickly, so many people came on board, the poster got made in what felt like minutes, and yet, this self-same platform has written into its core structures, and accepted uses, that some significant majority of the people who joined did so to “like” the group. Hear me, these friends were doing nothing wrong by joining; they were following Facebook’s logic of seeing, spreading, liking, and knowing. But this made me prickle because I found it harder to use Facebook towards the deeper, harder, more intense and labor-intensive norms of the very social justice organizing that had brought me and others to John, Tarek, and each other, and that were what was most needed for the effort I was working on. To make global screenings occur within about 10 days, what we most needed was for people to DO THINGS IN THE WORLD (find a room, get a copy of a film by John, invite a speaker, get bodies to that room). Just as was true for the Arab Spring, social media connected us, spread the word, and gave us an instantaneous and satisfying feeling of support and community, but good old fashioned community built from deep relationships formed and cemented in real places and over long term efforts was what finally supplied the muscle, the meaning, and the deep, take away truth of this awesome effort: Tarek and John are free because we (like they) can make the change we need by working with each other every day, in the places we live, and work, and love. How we can sustain this work, how we can again make local connections move nations, how we can use dominant/corporate social media forms as well as our own networks and technologies to make the world we want, these will be the questions I will continue to ask after this much-deserved party ends.
February 4, 2012
I had the pleasure of attending the first in a series of screenings at the UCLA film archive that will be revisiting the original films of “the new queer cinema” as so heralded by B. Ruby Rich in 1992. We saw my dear friend Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), and Sadie Benning’s Jollies (1990), with Tom, lead actor Craig Chester, and B. Ruby Rich in scintillating attendance.
I suppose that a happy but emotionally nuanced privilege of living into one’s middle age is to see the work of one’s friends and generation revisited, commemorated, celebrated, and memorialized (just last week I spoke at a similar event for The Watermelon Woman, 1996: a comer those few years later into this history, as Rich noted even then, because it took [black] lesbians just a little longer to move from video to film). For, it turns out that this year is not only the 20th anniversary of the (beginning of the male) NQC but also a sort of cultural watershed in relation to filmic revisits to AIDS activism of the same period (United in Anger, Sex in an Epidemic, We Were Here, How to Survive a Plague, Vito). Maybe distance makes us/AIDS activism/then seem safer, softened as it all seems by a rosy wash of loss, nostalgia, and the inevitable mellowing of age. I’ve certainly found it interesting, when on the road myself with such revisits, to find that contemporary audiences are not as open to returns that stay as defiant, angry, political, and anti-sentimental as our work was then. This may explain why United in Anger, a film that attempts to represent this period from the voice, analysis, and method of the time–from the point of of view of AIDS activists–is seeming the hardest to sell of the commemerative bunch, given directors Hubbard and Schulman’s commitment to not soft-peddling for the present (the film opens MOMA’s documentary fortnight in February, but has not had as easy a run of it in the A-level festival circuit).
Watching Kalin’s film these many years later (and Benning’s too) it is remarkable to see how dark, critical, theoretical, political and formally inventive is the work, ways of filmmaking that seem to have been largely absented from independent cinema in the past twenty years, arguably because of the evacuation of public funding from this sector. From where we sit today it seemed more incredible to see the funders of this film during its credits–the NEA (who also funded WMW in its last year of film funding), NYSCA–then what at the time seemed like the big conquest, its ultimate industrial home with Fine Line Features. On the long drive cross town to the screening, I was explaining to my friend that what made NQC queer to me was its home in a cultural millieu and friendship network that was inhabited by men and women (take the critical role of Christine Vachon in both Kalin and Haynes’ careers, for instance) who were equally inspired by a recent art school/liberal arts education in “critical theory” by way of a critique of gender and sexuality through feminism, and who happened to have to live our requisite moment of youthful exuberant artmaking during a plague that felled our remarkable friends and altered our lives. Ruby and Tom reiterated this vision of an uncompromising, challenging, art-like NQC from the stage. Films that were queer, as Ruby said last night, not so much because they were gay or lesbian but because they were inspired by AIDS, cheap rent, camcorders, and Reagan.
July 13, 2011
In the past few days, I’ve seen two powerful film screenings featuring works that historicize AIDS in the 1980s: We Were Here (“the first documentary to take a deep and reflective look back at the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco”) and United in Anger: A History of ACTUP.
Now, most people weren’t AIDS activists, and fewer still are professional AIDS remembers (a role several of us seem to have been gifted in the last few years), but I am both, and in the second role, have been asked to write or speak about the remembering of AIDS in three upcoming venues: a publication on the 25 year anniversary of ACTUP with the Quarterly Journal of Speech, a talk about recent AIDS video at Visible Evidence documentary conference in August, and a lecture in October at Concordia University for their nineteen-year long community lecture series and course on AIDS, Concordia HIV/AIDS Project. Most people don’t remember AIDS: in particular how we fought, how we cared and loved, how we raged, what we won, who we lost. This non-remembering of AIDS is a kind of recollection crisis in its own right, particularly affecting younger queers (of color) who don’t somehow know that there was unimaginable death, anger, activism, community-building, and art made because of AIDS, practices that continue to be highly relevant (if absent) to AIDS, queer youth, and the dearth of activism more generally.
I find that these two video projects (and Jean Carlomusto’s Sex in an Epidemic, and my own Video Remains, and others) each approach this recent remembering project with different forms, themselves reflective of the aims of their remembering goals. In short, We Were Here emotes and United in Anger rages–these feelings evident already in their titles–but also in their documentary approaches. WWH personalizes the crisis, focusing closely on six people with a soft and warm camera, evocative music, stories of personal loss and commitment, and a camera that lingers on tears (producing the same in its audience). Meanwhile, UIA moblizes a cold, sharp video look at a large group of speakers, and an even more clinical body of activist documentation of demonstrations and meetings, allowing us to feel that these images stand in for a mass of similar voices and a compendium of events and actions, and inviting us to enter through their anger and action (just another player in a movement of individuals that can lead to change). Both approaches feed us, although in different ways. Remembering AIDS–which was itself a complex amalgam of emotion, action, living, dying, loving, politics, and representation–demands as many complimentary approaches as we can afford and can bear. While we are all not professional AIDS remembers, nor need we be, we can all learn from this history, particularly in relation to its sustaining models of personal and political action in the name of human rights, health care, and the power of people to help themselves and thereby better their community and world.
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).
August 20, 2009
Earlier this summer I decided to produce Cheryl Dunye’s new feature film THE OWLS, an experimental thriller about four older-wiser-lesbians who accidentally kill a young lesbian and try to get away with it. The film is an homage to dark sixties psychological dramas where lesbians often die in the end: The Fox, Killing of Sister George, Muriel, the work of Patricia Highsmith. We shot the “workshops” last weekend (where the esteemed cast improvised from the script, aligning their characters with their own life stories and making sense of the place of murder, alcoholism, infertility and other Highsmithian tones in their “real” lives). For instance, Guinevere Turner and VS Brodie, Go-Fish-sweeties extrordinaire, re-visited their past highs and lows, on and off-screen, to get into their new couple, the troubled ex-rockers, Iris and Lily.
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The workshop was also when the B-unit (producing the documentary components of the film), which I am over-seeing, got rolling. We met (and shot) all the actors as themselves and their characters (as well as the spaces in-between), and interviewed much of the pared-down crew as well (the film is a micro-budget homage to the community spirit, and we’re-making-a-film-because-we want-to ways of early new queer cinema). We discussed issues of relevance to both the thriller-narrative and documentary components of the film: aging, inter-generational interaction within the queer community, the meanings of post-racial representation, tensions between butches and transgenderd members of the community (and crew), the legacy of nineties cinema. It was personal, political, and cinematic. A mix I love.
We shoot the rest of the film over five days this weekend. Yikes. More follows.
PS: The film features other queer cult-stars: Skyler Cooper, Lisa Gornick, Deak Evgenikos. Meanwhile, icons-in-their-own-rights like Jack Halberstam and Sarah Schulman took their parts as butch-consultant ans screenwriter, respectively. Everyone’s working for free. It’s a real family affair.