CINEASTE magazine (excerpt)
vol. XX, no.4 (1994)
vol. XXI, nos. 1-2 (1995)

"So Many Alternatives"

The Alternative AIDS Video Movement

by Alexandra Juhasz

In the twelve years since AIDS was first identified with a name, thousands of programs about the crisis have been produced by videomakers who work outside of commercial television. Most critics, viewers, and producers refer to this large and diverse body of work as 'the alternative AIDS media.' The term distinguishes the unique conjuctions of finance, ideology, artisanship, profit, and style of independent video from the standardized, profit-oriented, seemingly authorless, and unbiased network TV productions typically called 'the mainstream media.'

Of course, the binary terms 'mainstream' and 'alternative' obscure a great deal of cross-fertilization, mimicry, and hybridization: actually, both media use experimental as well as conventional forms; either format can espouse conservative ideology; 'alternative' videos can have budgets larger than those of the 'mainstream,' and can make a lot more money.

Nonetheless, those of us who make and use AIDS media have held on to this sometimes obscuring terminalogy because while connoting processes of production, it has equally served to signify production ideology. The terms express our understanding that the 'mainstream' media has consistently represented dominant (bigoted, distanced, judgmental) ideology about AIDS for the 'general public,' while the 'alternative' media represents a critique, reevaluation or resistance to these 'bad' images for a smaller, more committed audience. This simplistic understanding of the media has functioned to describe what has proven to be a relatively straightforward history of AIDS media. It has also contributed to a movement-wide awareness of the power of representation, giving words to a recognition of the negative con-sequences of mis- and under-representation by dominant institutions as well as the immense significance of resistant, critical, or alternative representations.

This terminology, however, does not allow us to see how the 'alternative' AIDS media is itself composed of indivdual tapes which are conceived, funded, produced, and distributed in an infinite variety of ways. The eight case studies which follow are example of 'alternative' projects based within the New York AIDS video community. They range in budget from $2,000 to $1,300,000, and in form from art tape to traditional documentary; they are shot on camcorders, Betacam, and 16mm film by producers who are self-identified as amateurs and professionals; and they range in distribution strategies from screenings at high schools to airings on PBS.

But their similarities are also telling. Several agencies and names involved in these projects appear in more than one case study which indicates commitments broader than one distinct project, and also point to the interrelation between alternative producers who are highly aware of each other's work. While interaction within the alternative community provides inspiration, however, all eight of these projects explicitly position themselves in some relationship, however diverse, to the form, reach, or agenda of the 'mainstream media.' Equally crucial, each one of them would never have been made without the highest level of passion and tenacity by their respective producer or collective. Such media is based primarily upon the urgency of politics and, according to Sean Cubbitt, the notion of struggle: struggle to find funding and equipment, struggle to learn skills, to organize distribution, and to invent the best forms for new content; struggle for specific real-world goals because the work is primarily and consistently motivated by a shared commitment to altering the course of the crisis.

Case Studies Chapter Index


The Audio-Visual Department of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC)

The Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) hired Jean Carlomusto as an audiovisual specialist in 1987. At that time, Carlomusto explains, the organization had "a TV set and one VCR and a need for information to get out." Today, the Audio/Visual Department is staffed by two full-time employees (Chas Brack and Juanita Mohammed) and several part-time staff (Alisa Lebow, Carlomusto, and Gary Winter), has its own 3/4" production studio and on-line editing equipment, and is responsible for the production of over fifty tapes, including Doctors, Liars and Women, Seize Control of the FDA, The Safer Sex Shorts, Thinking About Death, Work Your Body, It Is What It Is, and my own Women and AIDS and Prostitutes, Risk and AIDS (all of which are widely distributed for low prices by GMHC's Publication Department). GMHC also produces hundreds of "more volatile shows," maybe "good for a month," says Carlomusto, made for cable broadcast and sometimes for limited distribution, including Medical Update, Focus on Women, Caring, Mission Nutrition, and HIV Portraits.

To generalize about a GMHC look, tone, or content is impossible because work is made individually or in collaboration by members of a staff who themselves have different styles and interests (as well as by free-lancers, like myself, who are invited to produce segments or shows on issues of importance to them). The department's video production strategies haave continued to change, as does the crisis they cover.

Women and AIDS, a tape I produced with Carlomusto in 1987, utilizes a conventional documentary style to relay the then unconventional information that women, too, suffer from AIDS. The tape consists of talking-head interviews with female activists, educators, and healthcare providers who articulately present the distinct issues which affect women within the AIDS crisis: the potential dangers of negotiating safer sex; safer sex as birth control; the effects of racism, poverty, sexism, and homophobia upon HIV-infected women; and the scapegoating of prostitutes as an attack upon all women. The tape also includes detailed information about cleaning IV drug works and safer sex.

It Is What It Is (Bordowitz, 1993) is a scripted, stylish, educational tape made for and in association with teens. The hour-long tape is divided into three sections which stand on their own so as to be used in workshop settings: "Identity," "Homophobia," and "Safer Sex." It features a multiracial group of lesbian, gay, and bisexual, HIV-positive and -negative teen performers. In the tape's signature, direct-to camera scripted statements (as well as in the teen' confident self-presentation) they express the importance of self-respect both to acknowledge and embrace a gay identity and as motivation for always engaging in safer sex. The actors present challenging information about gay-bashing, coming out, and negotiating safer sex in a forthright, intense, sexy, and intimate manner. In this case MTV, not PBS, is the style being cribbed.

Living with AIDS has performed a variety of functions in a variety of formats because it is made to fill the gaps in the media landscape. "So much of the stuff on TV was horrible," Carlomusto says. "There was a total exclusion of people living with AIDS in its audience. Instead, everything was reported in terms of a panicked public. I wanted to do a half-hour show devoted to people living with AIDS. And that sent me out on the the streets." Lacking staff and technical equipment, Carlomusto began covering the rapidly escalating AIDS activist and PWA self-empowerment movements. Shooting at ACT UP's first Wall Street demo, she met David Meieran and Bordowitz, who were also documenting the event for Testing The Limits, the activist video collective which she joined soon after. In the following year, she became a founding member of DIVA TV, ACT UP's video affinity group.

Six years and something like a hundred tapes later, Carlomusto acknowledges that there is a different media landscape in 1994. Nevertheless, GMHC's extensive and consistent production history demonstrates that instiutional support (salaries, benefits, in-house equipment, and distribution) is a most crucial factor for removing many of the hurdles typical of the production of alternative AIDS media. Even so, the Audio/Visual Department's infrastructure and production style is nothing like that of the mainstream media. The Department recieves a fraction of the funding of the nightly news, and they remain connected and committed both to the issues on which, and the community to which, they report. Along with that comes burnout--Carlomusto is taking her first leave of absence since 1987, and Bordowitz, new head of the department, is also taking some time off--but also creativity, intensity, and anger.

Contact for GMHC Audio-Visual Department: 129 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011, phone 212-807-7517

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The New York City Commission on Human Rights AIDS Discrimination Unit (The Heart of the Matter )

From 1983-1991, the AIDS Discrimination Unit of the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) produced two AIDS educational videotapes as part of a larger preventative campaign: The Second Epidemic, an hour-long, made-for-public-television documentary about AIDS discrimination (1987, Amber Hollibaugh) and Hard to Get: AIDS Discrimination in the Workplace (1988, Alisa Lebow), a short tape made for use in training workshops about AIDS discrimination in the greatest cross-section of working environments. The tapes utilize high-end documentary style to coat their more radical messages about tolerance and justice, thereby attempting to reach people who are not necessarily open to AIDS education (not just people already affected by AIDS, but those people who are not, and therefore most inclined to discriminate). The Second Epidemic movingly covers actual discrimination cases taken up by the Unit (a young boy who is forced from school, a gay male couple who may lose their apartment), intercut with interviews with Human Rights Commission staff. Hard to Get uses faux newsreels to suggest the hysteria of much mainstream AIDS coverage. The steady, wise, informative voice of Ruby Dee counters this mis-information with the many reasons (medical, legal, ethical) not to discriminate in the workplace.

Unlike most alternative AIDS media, these tapes were produced slowly, and with relatively large budgets and a paid staff. They look like what they are -- city-sponsored health education films with a PBS flair -- but, while utilizing this traditional style, their makers believe that they also espouse a "sophisticated AIDS politics" grounded in years of struggle in radical cultural politics.

The work of the Unit asks the difficult question of whether it is possible to produce progressive media through a city- or state-funded institution. In 1986, the Unit hired lesbian rights activist Amber Hollibaugh, with the specific mandate of producing educational video. She eventually worked with two assistants, Brack and Lebow, who explains that "two white lesbians and a black gay man with relatively radical politics were the force behind a video from a city agency. This was state-funded propaganda by people who are marginalized by that very state. We realized in what a unique position we were and tried to make the most of it."

Although their videos were among the most successful endeavors of the Unit and were fully funded by the Commission, city bureaucracy and video production proved to be strange and difficult bedfellows. Nevertheless, the benefits of this system lay in the real clout and sanction given to work produced within the structure of a New York City agency. Their tapes are considered official and can go places where most 'alternative' work is not invited. On the other hand, this manner of work turned out to be only as solid as New York City politics. The AIDS Unit was shut down in 1990 because "we were making too much noise, we were too effective. They couldn't control us."

The Unit's three video producers all continue to work in alternative AIDS video: Lebow and Brack at GMHC's A/V Department, Hollibaugh as the director of GMHC's Lesbian AIDS Project and as producer of the recently completed documentary film The Heart of the Matter (with Gini Retticker, an independent film editor). The film is the first wide-release documentary about women and AIDS. It premiered on this year's P.O.V. series on PBS, and was the winner of the Freedom of Expression Award at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival.

story continues on Cineaste part 2

Cineaste Magazine: Alternative AIDS Videos
Case Studies Chapters continue (parts 2 and 3):