CINEASTE magazine__ part 3
Juanita Mohammed has made several AIDS tapes, beginning with
her involvement in 1990 with WAVE, The Women's AIDS Video Enterprise
(one of the several alternative AIDS video projects which I have
produced since 1987). WAVE was an innovative AIDS educational
video project designed to empower woment in the comminities disproportionately
affected by AIDS (urban, low-income, women of color) to produce
their own educational media. Within the structure of a long-term
AIDS support group, several women including Mohammed and myself
discussed AIDS, the media, and video production, eventually producing
the much-distributed tape We Care: A Video for Care Providers
of People Affected by AIDS. The project brought Mohammed's
interests in film production together with her expertise as a
volunteer and her passion for AIDS education and prevention. She
went on to produce Homosexuality: One Child's Point of View
with her eleven year-old daughter Jahanara, and is currently working
on a theater-video project with a group of sex gay black men.
During this project, Mohammed met Tyrone Ayers, who she taught
to use a camcorder, and who later shot her video Words to Live
In 1992, Mohammed was hired on a free-lance basis by the Gay Men Health Crisis Audio-Visual Department where she now works full time as the Assistant Coordinator. Among other things, Mohammed produces the "Caring" segment of the show -- short sequences which highlight the experiences, struggles, and issues of care givers of PWAs. She has produced fifteen segments since she began with the agency. Mohammed's favorite "Caring" segments are Two Men and a Baby (which focuses on a black gay couple who are in the process of adopting the HIV-positive son of a sister of one of the men), and Part of Me (coproduced with Alisa Lebow, which tells the story of Lilly Gonzalez, a Latina lesbian with AIDS who is an ex-IV drug-user turned AIDS educator). These short tapes feature long-take, extremely intimate, talking-head interviews with a wide variety of speakers.
Mohammed was also in charge of production of Words to Live By, an AIDS educational tape by and for teenagers. Funded with $2,500 from the Board of Education, the tape chronicles the work of teenagers at a special high school (Youth Dares) who are trained to become AIDS peer educators. After paying $500 to the student participants, Mohammed shot and edited the tape using the assistance of videomakers like Lebow and Ayers and the equipment of GMHC and DCTV. Due to bureaucratic slip-ups, the commitment level of their teenage participants, and the interference of school employees, Mohammed shot the tape over only seven days, partly during school time, partly on weekends. This resulted in extremely diverse footage, dependent upon peoples' moods and energy.
Mohammed believes the tape will be effective education because it "feels like teens really made it. It's more personal than the work that comes from adults for teens. They make mistakes and correct themselves. It looks like every day; it's not lit perfectly. But kids watching it will identify. They'll know those are real kids." The tape relies mainly upon scripted and talking-head interviews with the teen educators who worked on it who share their personal thoughts about HIV, safer sex, and AIDS education. These raw statements are intercut with role plays: one, called "Under Pressure," focuses upon a boy discussing with a female friend how to say no to a pushy lover, and the other, "What If She Says No," enacts what occurs when a girl takes on the power to resist unwanted sex. According to Mohammed, it is the "real" feeling of this tape -- signified by its lack of expertise, professional anchors, or high-end video equipment -- that will make the tape effective education.
AIDSFilms has produced six educational, fictionalized, "behavior-modeling" films about AIDS since its founding in 1985 by free-lance film producer John Hoffman, Frank Getchell of the Children's Television Workshop, and Dr. Susan Tross from the Narcotic and Drug Research Institute: AIDS: Changing the Rules (1987); Seriously Fresh (Reggie Life, 1988-1989); Are You With Me? (M. Neena Barnette, 1988-1989); Vida (Lourdes Portillo, 1988-1989); Reunion (Jamal Joseph and Laverne Berry, 1992); and Party! (Charles Sessoms and Laverne Berry, 1993). An independent and nonprofit production company, AIDSFilms produces high-end, glossy, expensive, and massively distributed programs. Says Hoffman: "We use the visual vocabulary that the audience is accustomed to. We believe that they trust messages that are delivered in a high quality, professional, stylish way." Perhaps because of this high level of professionalism, in 1993 they were awarded a million-dollar plus grant from ITVS to produce HIV Weekly, four hour-long, magazine-format television programs by and for the AIDS community.
A volunteer for GMHC in 1985, Hoffman wanted to contribute more effectively by using his skills as a filmmaker. Research for this project led Hoffman and another filmmaker friend, Getchell, to Tross, who was conducting a psychiatric study of gay men in attempts to learn about effective strategies for coping with HIV. Much of the team's educational and production philosophies came from her ideas of "dramatic modeling," using actors to model the behavior change that the audience is intended to effect.
Hoffman explains, "This period was about public relations, studying how one presents oneself in the philanthropic community to cain interest and support and trust." In December 1986, AIDSFilms gained initial financial support from WETA, the PBS affiliate in Washington, D.C. Subsequent grants and fundraising, including $55,000 from a gala evening benefit featuring an Alvin Ailey performance, were applied toward producing AIDS: Changing the Rules, a film designed to educate sexually active, straight adults about AIDS risk and prevention.
The film aired on PBS in November 1987 to a media blitz which revolved around two issues: their use of Ronald Reagan, Jr. as a host, and their use of a banana to demonstrate condom application, a strategy which had been highly criticized by the banana industry. The film's sponsors, Schmidt Laboratories (manufactureres of Ramses condoms, used throughout the film) also contributed another $100,000 for the right to distribute 20,000 copies of the film as promotion for their product. With such support, the group incorporated into a nonprofit company which raised over a million dollars in the following two years for production and distribution. Hoffman became executive director, and Tom Kalin was hired as Production Assistant.
By far the most consistently and highly funded alternative AIDS media organization, AIDSFilms is also noteworthy for their concerted effort to diversify their product and producers in the late Eighties and early Nineties. They understood the crisis was escalating most dramatically within black and Latino urban communities, and that there was little media education targeted at these groups. They wondered how a company made up almost entirely of affluent white professionals could reach, educate, and represent a community that was not their own.
By all accounts this was "a painful, awkward, confusing, and difficult" process, which has itself been closely and carefully evaluated in a Ford Foundation-funded study entitled Retooling for Diversity (written by Renee Tajima and Ernesto de la Vega). The study details this non-profit's attempt to complete "a critical phase in multicultural, multiracial organizational development from which other nonprofits might learn." This process engendered a new production phase for the company: utilizing advisory committees composed of people from the communities who were targeted for education, and demonstrating a commitment "to a filmmaking process where people of color are fully involved creatively and technically at every level of filmmaking from research, to scripting, production, editing and distribution." But the study is not clear if AIDSFilms effectively formed "a multi-cultural organization." The report ends: "Significantly, all three of the people of color on the Executive Committee have resigned from their positions, for various reasons."
These important difficulties withstanding, during their tenure the new Executive Committee did produce three very well-recieved films for targeted audiences (black, urgan boys in Seriously Fresh, black women in Are You With Me?, and Latinas in Vida), all written, produced, and concieved by professionals from the target communities.
The stories occur within a familial situation (a single, black mother, her daughter and boyfriend, a single Latina grand-mother, mother and daughter, three generations of a middle class black family in Reunion), itself embedded in a close-knit community or extended family. Focusing, soap-opera style, upon discussions about AIDS within interpersonal relationships, the films evoke the idioms, fashions, attitudes, and environments of the communities they attempt to represent and educate. All five of AIDSFilms' shorts are narrative films which look and feel a great deal like mainstream TV, diverging from this model only in the communities (urban people of color) and issues (AIDS education) represented.
James Wentzy / DIVA TV (current
AIDS Community Television
AIDS Community Television, a half-hour weekly public access
show devoted to programming "for greater advocacy, coalition
building, and greater public awareness of AIDS activism"
first went on the air on January 5, 1993. Since its second inception,
the new DIVA TV (James Wentzy) has produced over 120 programs
including...[see programs listing].
Wentzy's raw, angry and thorough coverage consists entirely of sometimes long and unedited shots--as if you are there--usually intercut with interviews of activist participants who contextualize or critique the event covered.
DIVA TV, the media affinity group of ACT UP, was defunct for a variety of personal, structural, and historical reasons when James Wentzy, who had joined ACT UP in 1990, reenergized it with the goal of commencing a weekly AIDS activist cable show. With his Hi8 camera, and no experience editing or producing video, Wentzy produced Day of Desperation, which documented the first ACT UP action he attended. A slow accumulation of grants (approximately $17,000 since 1992) had allowed DIVA to purchase a 3/4" off-line editing system, currently housed in Wentzy's living room.
Wentzy claims he has documented 95% of ACT UP/NY's demonstrations since his reconstitution of DIVA TV. "The weekly show is my life. If you want to know how I'm doing, tune into Public Access TV. Wentzy's new goal is a national media network devoted to reflecting the "struggles, needs, and state of mind" of people affected by AIDS. He believes his TV coverage of the AIDS crisis has an activist perspective. "It's the only weekly series in the world devoted to covering AIDS activism, and it's political. All activists see the crisis as a political problem." On the other hand, he sees that "the nature of the broadcast media is that it is fleeting, with so little chance for perspective or evaluation."
It is telling that the first action Wentzy documented was the last action covered by Testing the Limits. Wentzy is in effect a third wave AIDS video activist in a movement that has had only a six-year long history: re-creating a wheel only four years after the first AIDS cable show on the air (GMHC), three years after the first video collective devoted to covering AIDS activism was formed (Testing the Limits), and two years after a group was formed as an arm of ACT UP (the original DIVA TV).
Meanwhile, other individuals and organization (from high-power
organizations like AIDSFilms and the New York Commission on Human
Rights to individual artists and activists like Tom Kalin or Juanita
Mohammed) have been using both high and low end video to educate
diverse communities (gay teenagers, urban communities of color,
artists, PWAs, careproviders of PWAs, the "home viewer"
of broadcast TV) about safer sex, the interpersonal, physical,
and emotional consequences of HIV-infection and the politics of
the representation of AIDS.
After having concentrated here, and in the initial portion of this article in the previous issue, upon the production histories of eight diverse alternative projects (and having made many such alternative tapes myself), one conclusion about this work rises above the expected remarks upon the similarities of commitment, struggle, and ideology which set apart the alternative AIDS media.
Into the second decade of the AIDS crisis, and nearing ten years and tens of hundreds of alternative AIDS video projects, what I see is a crisis of multiple perspectives, diverse dimensions, countless communities, and limitless personalities and a response, in video, which attempts to take this web into account. There are "so many alternatives" because a complex and mutating social crisis needs as many responses as there are forms in which to respond.
As is evidenced in the projects above, mediamakers come to AIDS with camcorders and 16mm cameras, with their sights on national TV and individual video monitors, and with political inclinations which range from the left to center to apolitical. And it is pricisely this feature of the alternative AIDS media, as opposed to the bounded and closed nature of so much mainstream television, which I celebrate and applaud: a forum as rich, open, and malleable as are the individuals and communities who have been scarred and scared into action against AIDS and the cultural and political indifference it has continued to breed.
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