CINEASTE magazine__ part 2

"So Many Alternatives"
The Alternative AIDS Video Movement
by Alexandra Juhasz


(continues..) The Heart of the Matter addresses a range of feminist issues including the connections between HIV and the sexual double standard faced by women, racial stereotypes, and women's desire to please others. It focuses upon the life, family, and political transformations of Janice Jirau, an HIV-positive black AIDS activist who contracted the virus from her husband who refused to practice safer sex. Jirau acknowledges how the burdens of racism, sexism, poverty, and violence made her endeangering, consensual behavior seem at first like an expression of love rather than a lack of self-respect. In private interviews and public statements to The National Commission on AIDS and to her church and family, Jirau cautions other women to struggle with the personal and cultural barriers which keep women from taking care of themselves.

The film intercuts this portrait with shorter interviews with diverse HIV-positive women. In this way, the filmmakers attempt to reach an audience of American women who need to understand AIDS, yet are unlikely to feel they are part of the smaller, usually already politicized communities typically addressed by alternative video. Hollibaugh and Retticker initially felt that they needed to produce in film to get outside the formal and distribution limitations of alternative video. This meant a large budget, a large crew, and, ultimately, what has proven to be the kind of wide-scale release one can never hope for with a low-end educational or documentary video. But the efforts necessary to raise the money for completing this valuaable task did not match their other urgency -- to get the project completed so as to educate as many American women as possible about the risk of HIV-transmission and the politics of the AIDS crisis.

The history of this project is a story of money. "This is a film about fundraising," says Hollibaugh, "and not about AIDS. About a culture that doesn't value women, PWAs, or filmmakers committed to social issues." Although the project received a good deal of funding in the first years, the producers quickly moved through the limited instiutions that fund progressive arts production. When the $500,000 necessary for a feature-length project couldn't be raised, the project was completed as a sixty-minute video. The production history of The Heart of the Matter, the first attempt to make a feature film about women and AIDS, reveals as much about the production of alternative AIDS video: it is cheap; it can be make without the sanction of capital; and it can espouse radical politics.

The Heart of the Matter is distributed by First Run Features: 153 Waverly Place, New York, NY 10014 phone 212-243-0600

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Testing The Limits

Originally a group of six artists and AIDS activists who knew each other from The Whitney Independent Studio Program and/or ACT UP, the Testing the Limits Collective (TTL) has produced five videos since their formation in 1987: Testing the Limits Pilot (1987); Testing the Limits Safer Sex Video (1987); Egg Lipids (1987); Testing the Limits: NYC (1987); and Voices From The Front (1992). Part of the collective's struggle has been to strike a balance between the desires to reach a mass audience, remain true to their art-school training, and to their commitment to the movement which they document and in which they also participate. Currently in production on four hour-long documentaries about the gay and lesbian liberation movement, the collective's transition away from AIDS-specific video marks a significant change in their work as does this project's million-dollar-plus budget.

In 1986, David Meieran and Gregg Bordowitz conceived of a video project which would represent the resurgence of lesbian/gay/AIDS militancy in New York City. Bill Olander's Homo Video show at the New Museum served as an inspiration, bringing together for the first time a developing movement of art and activist video centered upon the politics of AIDS, homophobia, and gay identity. In the meantime, ACT UP was forming. It was a heady, exuberant, dynamic time; anything and everything was happening in the just-forming AIDS activist community, and it all needed to be documented. "ACT UP drove us, galvanized us, gave us a focus. There was a direct alignment between the group's history and our own. We were caught up in it--documenting daily...constantly."

In early 1987, Sandra Elgear, Robyn Hutt, and Hilary Joy Kipnis joined Meieran and Bordowitz in the production of the first documentary video about the fledgling AIDS activist movement. Their intention was to produce the first mass-release AIDS documentary for middle America, so they set their sights on PBS.

The organizing principle for the pilot they were producing to help raise funds for their thirty-minute PBS-style documentary was "document everything." The group taped coutless domonstrations, ACT UP meeting, public round tables, and interviews with AIDS activists. This documenting occurred however it could, which most typically meant "down and dirty footage" shot by whomever had a camera. This is what Meieran calls "alternative media": media production motivated by a commitment to a social issue where production occurs because it has to, by an unpaid staff who themselves are insiders to what they document.

Testing The Limits immediately began "to distribute itself" to AIDS service organizations as well as within the art and activist scene. Although the tape used a hybrid of conventional if roughly produced forms (talking head interviews with AIDS activists interspersed with sexy footage of AIDS domonstrations which is, in best MTV manner, rapidly cut to music), its content, the early history of ACT UP New York, was even less conventional. Testing the Limits never had its PBS airing: the style was too rough, the politics were too explicit. Thus, the group make its first steps towards professionalization, which, among other things, resulted in ideologically-bound splits within the collective.

The group's next project, Voices From the Front, took two-and-a-half intense years to complete and began where Testing the Limits ended--the 1988 March on Washington for gay and lesbian rights. The great diversity of issues, organizations, and activist strategies covered in this ninety-minute tape demonstrate how the AIDS activist movement and agenda had expanded and diversified since 1988. Transferred to film, Voices From the Front went on to play at art and independent theaters across the country and, with even greater success, on the international film market. In October 1992, it aired on HBO for a $15,000 fee. Nevertheless, the tape ran up a $40,000 deficit, and never aired on PBS, perhaps because of the group's continued reliance on "guerrilla coverage footage." But Hutt and Elgear think there is another reason: "We were too close to the material. Our friends, our lives, were in that tape. If we didn't have the type of intimacy, it wouldn't have been made. We wouldn't have gotten those interviews."

1992 also brought about an escalation in antigay violence, and lesbian and gay militancy. TTL began documenting the birth of Queer Nation, and the response of gays and lesbians to antigay initiatives across the country. Now consisting of Elgear, Hutt, and Meieran, the group continued their attempt to professionalize, working on the transition from "alternative" to "independent" media production: work that, they explain, requires funding before production; work that is job- rather than issue-driven; work that is organized, structured, and neat in its form and production strategies; work that answers first to its funders; work that is paid; work that is viewed by millions. After recieving a $1.3 million grant from ITVS in 1993, TTL is currently producing Rights and Reactions, a four-part series of hour-long documentaries about the history of the gay liberation movement. In this case, their political commitments will be marked by the process and professionalism that only money can buy.

Testing The Limits videos are distributed by Frameline: 346 Ninth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 phone 415-703-8654

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DIVA TV (first incarnation)

In 1989, DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television) was formed as an affinity group of ACT UP, "organized to be there, document, provide protection and countersurveillance, and participate." Catherine Saalfield, who co-founded DIVA TV along with Ray Navarro, Jean Carlomusto, Gregg Bordowitz, Bob Beck, Coasta Papas, Ellen Spiro, George Plaggianos, and Rob Kurilla, points out that DIVA "targeted ACT UP members as its primary audience and made videos by, about, and, most importantly, for the movement." The group produced three tapes in its first phase: Target City Hall, which chronicles ACT UP's March 28, 1989 demo against Ed Koch's administration; Pride, about the twentieth anniversary of NY's gay and lesbian pride movement; and Like A Prayer, five seven-minute perspectives on the ACT UP/WHAM demo "Stop the Church" at St. Patrick's Cathedral on December 10, 1989.

Testing the Limits and DIVA often shared footage, covered the same actions, and were committed to AIDS activism, as was also true of GMHC. But the AIDS video scene itself was diversifying and expanding along with the AIDS crisis. As their production histories reflect, by 1989 none of these groups necessarily shared ideological assumptions about AIDS video.

While Testing the Limits and DIVA TV had a close affinity in membership, content, and political commitment, the groups also differed significantly. With PBS as their goal, Testing the Limits always attempted to professionalize. DIVA, on the other hand, was remaining staunchly antiprofessional. As Saalfield explains, "Watching Testing the Limits evolve into an institutionalized organization reinforced DIVA's commitment to working as a collective. We remain fluid, make decisions with whomever comes to a meeting, and resist assigning a treasurer by dedicating any income to buying tape stock." According to Saalfiedd, DIVA's commitment to "the quick and dirty approach" of alternative production led to a "limited audience, inconsistent participation by collective members, and more process than product." But at the same time there remained "the essential goal of inclusivity, with open lines of communication among collective members for expressing opinions and offering analyses. Here protest is the process, communication is our form of resistance, and everyone has a say."

see information below on the current DIVA TV


DIVA TV (first incarnation) videos are available from Printed Matter: 77 Wooster Street, New York, NY 10012 phone 212- 925-0325

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Tom Kalin

The film and video artist Tom Kalin has made at least eight videotapes and films about AIDS since 1985, although he believes that all of his work (including, for instance, his feature film, Swoon--see Cineaste, Vol. XIX, No.3) is impacted by the crisis. His AIDS work has been financed, produced, and distributed in a variety of ways -- from peronally funded, individually produced montage-based experimental "art tapes" to collectively produced, glossy television. Kalin believes that he combines two models of the artist-as-producer: the "heroic artist," who give form to the issues and feelings of his own personal/political landscape, and the "collaborative activist" whose work reflects a collective interpretation of experience and ideology.

Kalin's first AIDS tape, Like Little Soldiers (made while completing his MFA at the Institute for the Arts in Chicago), marks his initial response to AIDS -- a personal and profound fear untempered by any interest in organizing or politicizing with others. The tape intercuts the brutal image of a pair of hands washing and picking off the white and then brown paint which color them, with the image of a burning shirt. In 1987, Kalin together with Stathis Lagoudikis produced News From Home, which renders the anxiety of disclosure of sero-status within a relationship and the society at large.

Kalin's search for and move towards a community represents a second stage in his AIDS work. His 1988 production, they are lost to vision altogether, reflects his move to New York and exposure to the activist politics of ACT UP. The tape strings together found and stolen footage from TV, movies, re-shot television, and Kalin's own images of sexuality, history, and activism, into a rapid and disorienting montage juxtaposing mass media hysteria with individual fixation, desire, and fear.

Until 1991 Kalin also produced work with the ACT UP artists' affinity group, GranFury. In 1990 the group produced Kissing Doesn't Kill, which consists of four thirty-second public service announcements for racial and sexual diversity in the face of AIDS all emphasize the group's belief that, although culture is made in a lot of places, the mainstream media sets the global and national agenda about AIDS. Therefore, to reach people and to reach for change, it is necessary to speak to people where they listen and in a language they understand. Kalin insists that "the ideal distribution" for even alternative AIDS video is television, "plop in the middle of the market place. You need to work to engage in the politics of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Benneton. There is no outside the market place in relation to art production -- the best you can do is to tease its margins."

Kalin makes tapes for ghosts -- the people he's lost to AIDS, the faces he's seen on city streets or at AIDS demonstrations. "I don't have anything more to say about AIDS than the proverbial Latina mother of two infected babies who is also sick herself. But I do have cultural access, entitlement, privilege." Kalin used his privilege like an artist, like an AIDS activist. He represents what he knows and how he lives in a mass-mediated society which is unaware that it is dripping with infection, and unaware of Kalin's grief and anger unless he represents it.


Tom Kalin's early videos are distributed by Drift Releasing, 611 Broadway, New York, NY 10012 phone 212-254-4118

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Cineaste Magazine: Alternative AIDS Videos
Case Studies Chapters continue (part 3):