Tomorrow night at the MOMA, KTLO contributor Jim Hubbard will open the annual Documentary Fortnight series with his exciting new documentary United In Anger. Perfectly timed for last year’s 30th anniversary of AIDS, and this year’s 25th anniversary of ACT UP, the film tells the story of the legendary activist group who fought tirelessly to change government definitions of AIDS, force scientists and the government to excel their development of life-saving drugs, and change the public perception of AIDS from a gay-disease to one that affected us all. The film examines the nuts and bolts of what made ACT UP’s successes and failures come to pass, with a special attention paid to the culture and camaraderie behind the scenes as well as the role of women in the group. I spoke to Hubbard last night about creating the film, the connections between ACT UP and Occupy Wall Street, and whether New York would be ready for another AIDS crisis.
Adam: Hi Jim, are you excited for the premiere?
Jim: Yeah. It’s started to keep me up night.
I know you were a member of ACT UP, both a longtime activist and longtime documenter of the movement, but how did this film come together?
It either took me 25 years, 10 years, or 3 years depending on how you count. I started filming ACT UP in June of 1987 at the Gay Pride March. I continued to film ACT UP for years afterward and make films about it. Elegy in the Street would be the most prominent of the films. But I was shooting 16mm and processing the footage myself, so I stood in contrast to all the people videotaping it, many of whom made dozens of tapes about ACT UP in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Then in 1995, at the behest of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS I convinced 30 or 40 AIDS activist videomakers to donate work to the New York Public Library, for the resources there. And then ten years ago when Sarah Schulman and I started the ACT UP Oral History Project, I always had it in my mind that I would make a film based on the project, and I started seriously editing what became United In Anger, about three years ago.
Why do you think it’s taken so long for a film to come out about this movement?
There have been films all along, most recently James Wentzy’s film Fight Back, Fight AIDS, but you know I think ACT UP’s role in the history books has been largely forgotten, and Sarah and I have to take some credit in helping to revive it by doing the ACT UP Oral History project. So I think that with last year being the 30th anniversary of AIDS, and this year being the 25th anniversary of ACT UP, it led to some kind of historical critical mass that fostered these films that deal with ACT UP’s role in changing the AIDS crisis.
One of the things that comes across when watch the film is that it can speak to so many people. We’re in a world where protesting and Occupy Wall Street are on the forefront of people’s lives. I’m wondering if you see a connection between Occupy and ACT UP?
Yeah I think there’s a real connection but it’s difficult to tell how conscious it is. Certainly there are people in Occupy who were in ACT UP. So they know about it. And there are certainly other people who remember ACT UP. But there are a lot of people who don’t know about it. It’s a product of the zeitgeist. ACT UP has had an influence on protest movements in the United States and to a certain extent the rest of the world. The influence is there. Its part of the culture. Occupy Wall St. has drawn on it. But that being said, Occupy Wall Street and ACT UP are also very different in a way. ACT UP was dealing with something very specific. And the way that ACT UP was most effective was by focusing very strongly on the particular issues and coming up with solutions to the those problems and forcing the government to adopt those solutions. And Occupy Wall Street is facing a different problem. It has to force people in this country to look at the economic structure of this country in a new way, and being specific works against that.
One of the things that I think your film does well is that you really present the broad culture of ACT UP, the way that people interacted and the way women had such a strong presence in ACT UP. How difficult was it to pare down the immense range of stories and what ACT UP did for a 90-minute film?
Well that’s always the problem with film and especially this one because it started with hundreds of hours of footage. But it was always my intention to show ACT UP in all its complexity, because that’s what was interesting about it to me. A movement where leadership was fluid, people rose to the occasion, so that when somebody needed to take a leadership role they did, and at the next demonstration, someone else could do it. That’s really important. The focus in the film is on the organization and how it sustained itself and created itself. The story couldn’t be told with five people representing ACT UP. That to me is antithetical to how the movement existed. I wanted to put everybody in there, which was impossible, but I tried to get as many as possible in there. Going through the interviews and the footage the people in the film emerged because they had pertinent things to say not because I imposed some structure on ACT UP. It was the interaction among all those people that made it successful and I wanted the film to reflect that.
I know you’ve been involved with this for a long time – you were in ACT UP, and you’ve done the ACT UP Oral History project, but doing this film were there ever moments – you must have your thoughts on the movement pretty well established, but where there moments where new things came together based on how you were putting it together?
I don’t have an answer to that – the way that this film was made was that I assembled a cut that pretty much encompassed the entire film, and it was 90% archival footage and much less of the interview footage than exists in the finished film. But I always knew that for the film to be understandable to someone who hadn’t been immersed in the movement, who hadn’t lived through the AIDS crisis, I needed to work with someone like that. So that’s when Ali Cotterill, the editor came to work on the film. She’s 31 so her knowledge of all those events was minimal. She had a basic idea but didn’t know the complexity of it. So in order to make it understandable to her, so she could make it understandable to other people. There were many moments when she would say, “What’s going on here? What are you trying to convey?” I always thought it was being conveyed through the archival footage, but she made me understand that people had to point to what was being conveyed.
Were there any stories you really wanted to tell but couldn’t?
There was a point in the early editing when I thought I was going to make the four-hour Sorrow and the Pity of the ACT UP story. But I quickly realized that didn’t make much sense, what was really needed was the introduction to the ACT UP story. So things began to fall by the wayside – one of the most prominent being ACT UP’s involvement in the needle exchange, which forced the state of New York to make possession of needles legal. There’s almost no footage of needles because it was too sensitive. There’s a certain amount of before and after footage – of people explaining what they’re doing. But you could never film someone handing over a needle. But the thing that made it legal in this state was the trial where the ten defendants pleaded the necessity defense and convinced the judge who started out being extremely antagonistic to their position, they convinced her that what they were doing was right. And she acquitted them. There is footage of that but the way it was set up is that it’s all footage of the witness stand, and the sound is so awful that you can only listen to it in a quiet room, and even then you can’t understand much of it. So there was no way to put together the story in a visually dynamic way. So that’s one thing that fell by the wayside. Another thing was the story of Jim Lyons’ arrest. It’s the only thing that I know where there’s footage of the arrest, footage of him talking about the arrest at the ACT UP meeting, and then our interview with him which was sixteen years later, where he tells the story. Not only do you have the event being filmed but also you have memory taking effect. It shows what it took to put yourself on the line like that. But in the interest of a tight structure and time, it had to become a DVD extra.
Were there people’s stories you wanted to tell but they had died? Where you couldn’t find anything?
There were a number of people like that. Early on I had this conception that there would be these mini-biographies in the film, but they never really worked and they would have made the film too long. Some examples are Katrina Haslip, who was really important in changing the CDC definition of AIDS. There isn’t that much footage and what there is isn’t very good unfortunately. I also wanted my friend Dave Feinberg to be in the film more. There are a couple of shots where he’s in the background but again it was a story that there wasn’t footage of.
Your story is set in New York – do you think if we had another crisis like AIDS do you think New York is set up for people to come together in this way again?
I don’t know because I think this whole push towards gay marriage is about the privatization of people’s lives and it’s not conducive to creating the community that’s necessary for a movement to come out of. If AIDS had happened ten years before or after it did, – certainly ten years before, it wouldn’t have been possible, because there wasn’t the infrastructure of a lesbian and gay rights movement that could help create ACT UP. Had it come along in 1972, it wouldn’t have happened because there wasn’t the infrastructure that could have responded to it. If it happened in 1962, there wouldn’t have been a label as a gay disease, because all those people would have been so deeply closeted. There were plenty of people who were deeply closeted as it were, but because of the movement it forced them out of the closet, rather than into the closet.
Hopefully your film will make us more prepared. Good luck opening night!
Thanks! Oh by the way – I wish I could have gotten Ira Sachs in the film more! He’s in there in Target City Hall, and there’s a circular shot that goes around CHER – the affinity group. I think there’s a shot of him in one of the CDC demonstrations. So look for him!
United in Anger screens Thursday night at 8PM at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, New York, NY). Extra tickets will be released 9:30AM on Thursday. If you want to help support the film further, you can donate to the film’s Kickstarter campaign to raise $15K to help pay for post-production and distribution costs. We recommend it!