A Closer Look at United In Anger

Page 1

A Closer Look at United In Anger. An Interview of Jim Hubbard, director of ​United in Anger by julien Ribeiro in the context of the exhibition ​David Wojnarowicz. History Keeps me Awake at Night at the Mudam. JR - You made this film 25 years after the founding of ACT UP, can you tell us a bit about this historical time? And especially about how in this time of despair, people found the strength to fight back. And what was your place at that time? JH - First, what people have to understand is that the situation in the United States 25 years ago was completely different from what is now. Gay rights did not exist in much of the U.S. There was no gay marriage. There were almost no openly gay elected officials. The U.S. government was openly hostile to gay people, intravenous drug users and people of color who were the groups most affected by the AIDS crisis. In addition, tens of millions of people did not have health insurance. Every service that people take for granted in civilized countries had to be fought for. In 1981, when AIDS/HIV was first recognized, there were no social services for people with the disease. Before anything else, people with AIDS and their friends had to create an infrastructure for dealing with the disease and its consequences. Organizations that provided free or low-cost medical care, help in dealing with government resources and with private insurance companies, getting social security disability insurance etc. etc. all had to be created from scratch. It was only after 6 years of dealing with the immediate problems caused by the epidemic that a strong organized political response emerged. Let me turn your inquiry about despair around. Why was it that some people did sink into despair despite the obvious political causes of the crisis? As the legendary labor organizer Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn! Organize!” There was a saying in ACT UP: “Turn your grief into anger and your anger into action.” I’ve always disagreed with Douglas Crimp’s notion that mourning and militancy are somehow opposed to each other or are mutually exclusive. The people of ACT UP did both and used the energy of grief to fuel their protests. The urgency of the situation necessitated this. I have been filming the gay movement since 1978. Five of my 25 finished films are primarily about AIDS. My artistic practice revolves around the clash between formal concerns around the visual nature of moving images and my passion for grassroots political action. I have always been very interested in gesture and behavior that wasn’t performed for the camera. Demonstrations are perfect places to explore these concerns. People’s attention is focused on their political goals and they are largely unaware of my camera, so they behave and gesture in ways that are not consciously designed for the camera. I began filming ACT UP soon after it was formed. ACT UP’s first demo was in March 1987. I first filmed ACT UP in June 1987 at the Lesbian & Gay Pride March in New York. The first ACT UP demonstration that I went to was the Sloan-Kettering action in July 1987. I continued filming ACT UP for years. I began attending the regular Monday night meetings of ACT UP in the fall of 1987 and didn’t miss a meeting for years.


JR - In the beginning of your documentary we can see that Wall Street was a historical place for ACT UP, first in 87 for a massive aids demonstration, then 88 and 89. How is this place connected to the fight against Aids and what impact had this first demonstration in 87 on ACT UP? JH - My first encounter with ACT UP was in March 1987. I climbed out of the subway at the corner of 12​ Street and 7​ Avenue and saw a flyer pasted to a pole. It called for a demonstration at Wall Street at 7 a.m. on March 24, 1987. My first reaction was “Who the hell would go to a demonstration at 7 in the morning and why the hell are they doing it at Wall Street when the government is the problem?” This was a fundamental misunderstanding on my part. First, the AIDS crisis was and always has been a crisis of capitalism so a demonstration at the very center of U.S. capitalism was entirely appropriate. If it weren’t for the pharmaceutical industry dominated by immense corporations interested only in their own profits, AIDS would not have become the global crisis that it became. If the U.S. healthcare system weren’t organized for the benefit of for-profit corporations, the government would have provided the services needed by people with AIDS, would have provided medical care, would have appropriated the funding and done the research to find a cure and a vaccine. Also, what I didn’t realize was that 7 a.m. is the perfect time for reaching people who go to work on Wall Street as well as for the demonstrators who were largely people with regular 9-5 jobs. th

th

JR - Usually the portraiture of Aids and Aids activism is whitewashed and we don’t see a lot women, latinX, QPOC dealing and fighting against Aids. United in Anger show how this is wrong and how present they are and we have the feeling there is a lot of transmission of knowledge inside the group about the specific needs of minorities. In result, ACT UP didn’t fight for a unique and universalist response against AIDS but for an ensemble of responses for women, POC, sex workers, transgender people, poor people, people inside the prison system…. Why do you think ACT UP succeed in this way to think, to act, instead of a “focus”, a “perfect” solution for middle class white gay male? This is a complicated issue and ACT UP did not always get it right. The basic reason that ACT UP worked on the myriad problems that were part of and connected to AIDS is that there were people in ACT UP who spoke up when their needs weren’t being addressed. One of the tenets of the AIDS activist movement was that everyone had a right to speak for themselves and that was encouraged in ACT UP. However, during the Monday night discussions, one of the phrases most often heard was “What’s that got to with AIDS?” If the subject was homelessness, to a middle or upper middle-class person with AIDS, the answer was that homelessness did not have anything to do with AIDS, but to a homeless person with AIDS, it was the crux of the problem. ACT UP had to understand that problem from the perspective of the homeless person. Furthermore, a middle-class person who lost his job and his health insurance, who exhausted his savings, could very easily be facing homelessness as well. In addition, there were several caucuses within ACT UP whose purpose was to keep these multiple issues in view, continuously remind the group of these needs and organize demonstrations and other actions to ensure that these problems were addressed. These included Majority Action (the caucus for People of Color), Latino/a Caucus and the Women’s Caucus. AIDS was never just a medical problem in the U.S. It was always a social and political problem. ACT UP worked tirelessly to keep that in view and to focus its attention on AIDS in its entirety. ACT UP compelled the U.S. government to provide the necessary services and pressured the government and the pharmaceutical industry to do the research to find medicines to combat the


virus and opportunistic infections. In New York State, ACT UP in coalition with groups dedicated to other diseases ended the practice of excluding coverage of so-called pre-existing conditions and forced what is known as community rating on the insurance industry. This forced insurance companies to price health insurance based on the entire population rather than charging individuals with certain diseases extortionate prices. This allowed tens of thousands of people to gain health insurance. And that work highly influenced the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Still, ACT UP never could convince enough Americans that healthcare was a right. As a result, medicines for HIV are still obscenely expensive. Access to medicines, to health care and to social benefits is still denied to millions of Americans. JR - ACT UP’s actions were so brilliant, and became a model for other organizations from fight against climate change to the opposite, in France, ​la manif pour tous the organization who fight against gay marriage. Usually they tend to reproduce the visual impact of ACT UP. Though the true power of ACT UP came from its organization, as Anna Blume called organic.​ The force was in the affinity groups. Can you tell us how this configuration appears inside ACT UP and how it succeeded in consolidating? There is no doubt that ACT UP’s graphic designers have influenced grassroots political organizing around the world. ACT UP’s posters, stickers and other paraphernalia were designed to be easily read and understood in the moment. The graphics were eye-catching and served to convey the political message. Everything produced by ACT UP is in the public domain. This means that anyone can use it. Unfortunately, it also means that some people with politics contrary to everything ACT UP stood for can learn from ACT UP. There were several aspects to ACT UP’s successful organization. First, there was a simultaneity of actions. During any week of ACT UP’s heyday, the entire group could be planning a national action with affinity groups planning their individual actions within the larger demonstration, while there might be a local ACT UP action, and smaller groups would be performing zaps around the city. Additionally, on the weekend, there might be a teach-in to acquaint members with all issues that were part of the upcoming national demonstration. Second, ACT UP always knew more about the problem than the opposition and focused on achievable solutions. For instance, ACT UP members studied the drug approval process at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They then analyzed how the process was working for people with AIDS and how it failed them. Then ACT UP would produce specific, detailed solutions to the problems. This is how ACT UP coerced the FDA into speeding up the drug approval process, while simultaneously getting access to drugs through Parallel Track, a system for allowing people access to drugs that had not yet received final approved. Third, the affinity group structure allowed ACT UP to remain flexible and effective. Affinity groups were smaller groups within ACT UP, usually self-selected, but sometimes just a group of people who took Civil Disobedience (CD) Training together. This was a structure that was used successfully by the Black Civil Rights movement, the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement and other grassroots political struggles in the U.S. and elsewhere. The members of each affinity group were profoundly dedicated to each other. They looked after each other during demonstrations, waiting until each member was released from jail. They took care of each other during illnesses. For the largest national demonstrations, each affinity group decided how it was going to participate in the demonstration. This included specific actions, design of posters,


costuming and other aspects of political street theater as well as the specific target of the group’s action. In ​United in Anger,​ for instance, you can see the affinity group Seeing Red march together with their blood-stained lab coats, chanting “the FDA has blood on its hands, and we’re Seeing Red” (“Seeing red” is an idiom meaning being very angry.). Also, you see Wave Three at Target City Hall. One of the members polls each and every member of the group to ascertain if each person is ready to go into the street and get arrested. This is an incredible example of radical grassroots democracy in action. In ​United in Anger​, you can see this happen at each of the major demonstrations—Seize Control of the FDA, Target City Hall, Storm the NIH, Stop the Church and Day of Desperation. Each affinity group is performing its own action within the structure of the larger demonstration. This keeps the target continuously off-guard and allows for multiple messages to be conveyed. One participant described the actions of all the affinity groups at Seize Control of FDA as “it looked like some sort of little medieval war, where all of these different little bands of peasants were storming the gates of the FDA.” The police and the staff of the FDA were no match for the variety of creative interventions that ACT UP employed that day. JR - In the one of the last parts of United In Anger, we can see how grief and death was used as a politic tactic by ACT UP and also maybe how politic was used to deal with grief. You showed David Wojnarowicz had a political memorial procession the Wednesday, July 29, 1992. This form of political ritual to honoring the dead wasn’t use at the beginning of ACT UP. what changed inside ACT UP and in the eyes of the public with this new form of protestations, of grief ritual? The continuing problem was always how to get people’s attention. Americans lose interest in political issues very easily and very quickly. In order to maintain awareness of the urgency of the AIDS crisis, ACT UP had to constantly up the ante in order to get the attention of the press, the government and the public. Also, as the AIDS crisis dragged on, activists became increasing desperate. In terms of screen time, the section on political funerals is somewhat out of proportion to the rest of the film. Originally, the section took up even more time and the editor, who wanted to severely cut it, said to me, “you don’t want to hit people over the head with it, do you?” The answer was yes. The first hour and fifteen minutes of ​United in Anger details the history of ACT UP, explaining its complexity and showing the inner workings of successful grassroots political organizing. Undergirding all this hard work was the pain and suffering of people dying—friends, lovers dying painful, ugly protracted deaths at a very young age. It was absolutely necessary to convey that underlying suffering to the audience. And so, the Political Funerals section not only serves to detail ACT UP’s strategies and tactics, but also to force the audience to experience the pain and suffering that underlay all that political work. JR— Your friendship with Sarah Schulman began many years ago, Before United in Anger that she produced, you work together on another project, ACT UP Oral History, some of the videos are presented here at the Mudam during the exhibition of David Wojnarowicz. How are those two projects interlaced? Sarah Schulman and I have been collaborating for a very long time. We first bonded in 1984. We were part of a small group of activists putting up a queer political poster one night. It was raining so hard that the posters would not stick to the walls, so we went into the subway and wheat-pasted the posters in there. In 1987, we co-founded what we originally called the New York Lesbian & Gay


Experimental Film Festival, which is now known as MIX NYC, the New York Queer Experimental Film Festival. In fact, the festival comes out of the same zeitgeist that produced ACT UP and, indeed, we decided to do the festival just a few days before ACT UP was founded. Sarah and I ran the festival together for 5 years and it has continued to focus on and bring the world’s attention to grassroots, experimental queer cinema. The 31st edition will take place November 23–24. June 2001 was the 20th anniversary of the recognition of HIV/AIDS. Sarah was listening to the radio and heard a broadcast that said, in essence, at first Americans were upset by AIDS, then they got used to it. We had to do something about the complete erasure of the incredibly hard work of thousands of AIDS activists who forced the U.S. government to deal with the AIDS crisis, who compelled the mainstream U.S. media to treat people with AIDS more humanely and to report in a truthful, more evenhanded manner on the crisis. Because one of the tenets of the AIDS Activist Movement was that people with AIDS and the people fighting in the trenches with them were the true experts in the disease and that anyone in the movement could be a spokesperson, we decided that the best thing we could do was to provide a platform for people in ACT UP to tell their own stories. So, we started work on the ACT UP Oral History Project. We have done 187 interviews, ranging in length from 1 to 4 hours. Complete transcripts and video clips are available on our website ​www.actuporalhistory.org (If we had funding, there would be a new website with the video of all the interviews in their entirety.). All the talking heads in ​United in Anger are excerpts from the oral histories. I decided that I had to allow every person to speak in complete thoughts and not just sound bites, because that’s how people talked in ACT UP. Also, it was crucial that many people got a chance to speak in the film because one of the most important aspects of ACT UP was its fluidity of leadership. Theoretically everyone is ACT UP was capable of being a leader. As leaders became exhausted by the work or died, new people would rise up to take their places. This is reflected in the film. JR - And last question, how do you deal with archives? Some was filmed by you but others weren’t. Video archive has a way to tell us a truth, but this truth can be biased some time? What is you process for understanding the reality behind the video? My relationship with AIDS activist video goes back to at least 1987. I started filming the gay movement in 1979. In the early years, I was often the only person there with a camera. When AIDS emerged in the early ’80s, I began looking for a way to make a film about AIDS and the overwhelming feelings I was having about the threat from the epidemic to my community. I first filmed ACT UP in June 1987 at the Lesbian & Gay Pride March in New York. Those early efforts resulted in my film Elegy in the Streets. A small amount of my footage ended up in United in Anger, but the vast majority of the archival footage in United in Anger was shot by other people on video. I must emphasize that I was filming the demonstrations, that is, I was using celluloid and processing the film myself, manipulating the chemistry and altering the colors in order to explore the various meanings of the events in front of my camera. Because of my method, I wouldn’t see the images I created for many months after they occurred. AIDS activist videomakers were working in a completely different manner. They worked in collectives, so numerous videomakers were recording the events. Their goal was to videotape the event and get it out to the public as quickly as possible. Their practice reflected the urgency of the crisis. I knew the AIDS activist videomakers who were taping ACT UP and other AIDS related events. In most cases I was a few years older than they were and certainly I was working in a very different manner. I was friends with many of them and admired their efforts and their commitment to


ending the AIDS crisis. Nevertheless, I thought that the fact that they were documenting the events and getting it out to the public immediately allowed me to do my work in a different manner. I no longer felt the pressure to document an event, but could film in my own inimitable, contemplative way. In the mid-90s I became involved in the effort to collect and preserve the video documentation of the AIDS crisis. I researched the institutions that might be willing to provide storage and preserve these tapes. I worked to convince many videomakers to donate their material to the New York Public Library. The collection at the NYPL contains over 1,000 hours of videotape by 30-40 individuals and collectives. In the process of making United in Anger, I watched every available tape in the NYPL in order to decide which footage I wanted to include in the film. The process took 2 years. I had a largely thought out conception of which demonstrations I wanted to include and the basic narrative of ACT UP that I wanted to tell. That original narrative is substantially followed in United in Anger, though the footage did not support the telling of certain stories (e.g., the 1989 Montreal AIDS Conference and The Split that occurred in ACT UP in 1992). There were also subjects that were given greater importance in the finished film than I originally conceived. The 4-year struggle to change the CDC definition of AIDS became much more important as I looked at the footage again. It was a struggle and a victory that changed the course of the epidemic worldwide and saved thousands, perhaps millions of lives. In a different way, the political funerals were given much more screen time because they became a way of expressing not only the desperation of AIDS activists as the crisis continued despite all their efforts, but a way to convey to an audience that didn’t live through the crisis the underlying motives of the activists and to understand the anguish of mass death that haunted them. It was also necessary to eliminate certain stories in order to make a coherent, not overlong film. At an early point, I thought I would make an extremely long film on the order of The Sorrow and The Pity (Le chagrin et la pitié), but I realized that a shorter film that made a first attempt to historicize ACT UP ​and examine the successes, failures and inner workings of the movement would be more useful and more appropriate at that time. To directly answer your last question, the process of understanding the reality of the video was to live through the reality behind the video. I fully expect that others will make films using this material. Future filmmakers, for whom the AIDS crisis is a world historical event, will make very different films and will find very different realities behind the video. For more on my relationship to the AIDS activist video archive, see my article “AIDS Activist Video and the Evolution of the Archive” published in English on my ​website and published in German in the book ​Queer Cinema​. This interview was made the october 30th 2019 in the context of the screening of United in Anger at the Mudam​.