AIDS activist speaks about documentary film

Filmmaker Jim Hubbard spoke about his new documentary, “United in Anger,” at the Loria Center on Monday.
Filmmaker Jim Hubbard spoke about his new documentary, “United in Anger,” at the Loria Center on Monday. Photo by Harry Simperingham.

Jim Hubbard, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based experimental and documentary filmmaker and co-founder of MIX, the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival, screened his new film “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP” on Monday night at the Loria Center. Hubbard spoke to the News about the motivations behind “United in Anger,” a feature-length documentary on the AIDS activist group ACT UP. Hubbard’s films, including the Ursula Award-winning “Memento Mori,” have screened at the Museum of Modern Art, the Berlin Film Festival and the London Film Festival.

Q Your films are heavily concentrated on the LGBT experience and community. What is the motivation for that?

A In 1982 or so, when suddenly we were confronted with AIDS, I wanted to make a film about it. I didn’t want to do what the mainstream media was doing, which was invading people’s hospital rooms, showing them in the most objectified, victimized way possible. But it was difficult because people were dealing with this strange new difficult disease and they often didn’t want cameras shoved in their faces. It was often a bit problematic.

My ex-lover Roger Jacoby died of AIDS. He wanted to be filmed. I filmed the last year and half of his life, and when he died, I inherited the outtakes. In 1987, suddenly ACT UP appeared. With those two elements, I made the film “Elegy in the Streets,” a 29-minute silent film that was a combination of public and private responses of AIDS. I made several short films. They all relate to AIDS or, in the case of the film “Memento Mori,” death.

Q Your newest piece, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, is not the first time you have filmed ACT UP. You previously worked on the ACT UP Oral History Project, which featured 102 ACT UP interviews at Harvard in 2009 and 114 interviews in New York in 2010. What initially attracted you to documenting ACT UP?

A If I can go back to June 2002, it was the 20th anniversary of AIDS. I got a phone call from Sarah Shulman. Sarah and I have been friends for a long time; we actually started a film festival called MIX. June of 2002, it was a bright blue, sunny early summer morning, and I get this phone call from Sarah. She was really upset because she had heard this radio broadcast that essentially said, “At first Americans were upset by AIDS … and then they got used to it.” What had been erased was the effort of hundreds and thousands who forced government and mainstream media to deal with the AIDS crisis. She said, “We have to do something about this.” People with aids and people in the trenches fighting the disease are the real experts of AIDS and these are the people who should be on the screen representing themselves.

Q Are you a member of ACT UP?

A Yes, I’m in ACT UP. It is really a self-determined membership. If you wanted to vote at a meeting you just had to attend three meetings before voting — that is the closest thing to a membership criterion we had. It started in New York. At its height, 400 to 500 people went every Monday night. They carried out hundreds of demonstrations and zaps.

Q Zaps?

A A zap is a quickly created, highly focused political intervention. If there is particular problem, say, a political figure does something that needs to be addressed immediately, you go and do something right away. You say, “We need to zap the government tomorrow.” And so, tomorrow a dozen people will be there and do something that will upset the government because the government did something that was antagonistic to the people.

There were small instantaneous demonstrations. Then, there were the larger demonstrations that took months of planning and [involved] a thousand people. So that’s why it is hard to tell how many members of ACT UP there were. The first chapter was in New York and in a very short time, chapters sprung up all around the country and the world. At its peak, there were 147 chapters. Now, there are only a handful left.

Q And why is that?

A People burned out. Lots of people died. When the Clinton administration came in, it was harder to demonstrate against them. AIDS became institutionalized and it became part of the landscape instead of the crisis that it was in the mid-80s through the 90s. In ’96, the AIDS Cocktail came in. People were healthy, there was less urgency, and a lot of people were getting proper healthcare. I mean, you know what a mess healthcare is in this country, but people were getting healthcare. There was ADAP-AIDS Drugs Assistance Program, and there was Social Services. But, all that stuff, all those benefits and services had to be fought for and won. And that’s what ACT UP does.

Q Since you have already done extensive archival work on ACT UP, why was it necessary to make a feature-length documentary of ACT UP?

A AIDS was the essential tragedy of my generation of gay men. I started filming ACT UP in June 1987 because all my friends and colleagues were dying. I felt compelled to continue dealing with it in my art. When we started the ACT UP Oral History Project, it was always my intention to make a film as well. The oral history interviews are available to people as primary research material, but I felt like I had to make some kind of statement of my own.

Not everyone in ACT UP has AIDS. Friends, lovers and relatives also joined. We see ourselves as members of a community preserving our history. We don’t see ourselves as outsiders going and taking things. When I was filming ACT UP in the 1980s and 90s, I saw myself as filming my own community. I was telling my story as well as the story of my friends and colleagues.

Q How does “United in Anger” differ from other documentaries stylistically?

A The normal mode of documentary in this country is to take five people and have them stand in for the entire history of your subject. This film is the opposite of a five-character talking-head documentary. There are dozens of people in this. You can’t tell the story of ACT UP properly by relying on a small number of people. The only way to tell the story of ACT UP is to get lots of people to tell the story.

Q Is there anything particularly unique about ACT UP’s brand of protest?

A ACT UP brought a whole new way of doing direct action and civil disobedience to this country. I always say that the universal lesson of ACT UP is that a small number of people, highly focused, who know more than their opponents, can utterly change the world. We would pick particular targets and go out using expert, colorful graphics and various methods of street theater. We sat in the streets sometimes … whatever tactics worked.

Q What should viewers take away from the film?

A I guess there are only two underlying purposes of the film. One, to put ACT UP and the AIDS activist movement into their rightful place in mainstream U.S. history. And two, to foster additional activism, not even necessarily AIDS activism.

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