San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival 1995

Political Funerals

Bay Area Reporter June 15,1995
written by Wendell Ricketts

When the late Mark Lowe Fisher's manisifesto Bury Me Furiously appeared anonymously in the now-defunct QW magazine in October 92, it wasn't the first time an activist had suggested that the funerals of friends and lovers with AIDS deserved to assume a political and social dimension far beyond the act of private grieving.

In 1988, writing in
"Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell," his catalog essay for "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing," an Artists Space exhibit in New York, David Wojnarowicz observed, "There is a tendency for people affected by this epidemic to police each other or prescribe what the most important gestures for dealing with this experience of loss would be. I resent that, and at the same time worry that friends will slowly become professional pallbearers ... perfecting their rituals of death rather than the relatively simple ritual of life such as screaming in the streets."

Screaming in the streets is what James Wentzy's Political Funerals, showing at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on June 17th 1995, is all about. Even at only 29 minutes, it's an extraordinary piece of documentary work (produced by DIVA TV--Damned Interfering Video Activists-- on the weekly series AIDS Community Television).

Beginning with striking images from Wojnarowicz's own New York funeral, Wentzy infuses his documentary with a kind of home-movie edginess: the occasionally odd angle or the shakiness of a hand holding a camera add to the documentary's sense of immediacy and, indeed, to its humanity. These are regular people attending the funerals of their regular friends-that horrific and familiar ritual.

What isn't regular, however, is the sight of a body being carried through the public streets in an open coffin. The D.C. funeral of Tim Bailey, for example, which Wentzy includes, provoked a bizarre confrontation with police. Marchers, attempting to take Bailey's coffin out of a van for a procession, were ordered to stop. When they insisted on continuing, a macabre wrestling match took place, with the coffin at the center of it and Bailey's body jostling around inside. It sounds undignified-disrespect for the dead and all - but the scene is almost supernaturally inspiring. It's the immediacy again-that and the question that the documentary asks so well: Whomever the "authorities" are in any given situation, what are they so afraid to let people see?

Indeed, wherever they take place, political funerals are frequently attacked-largely because of the powerful reaction (and calls to action) that they invoke. One of the great ironies of the South African freedom movement, in fact, was that public funerals almost always brought violence from police and that, in turn often led to another public funeral. It was an eloquent, if cruel, metaphor for the cycle of oppression in South Africa under apartheid.

Wojnarowicz, among others, saw the utility of such demonstrations for the struggle against AIDS-both for their furtherance of political goals and for their ability to remind the living that grief did not have to remain private, did not have to be kept politely apart from anger. Wojnarowicz, whose words are heard as narration throughout the film, wrote in Post Cards from America: "I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers, or neighbors would take their dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to Washington D.C. and blast through the gates of the white house ... and then dump their lifeless form on the front steps. It would be comforting to see those friends, neighbors, lovers and strangers mark time and place and history in such a public way."

Indeed, the 1992 "Ashes Action" in Washington D.C. was almost exactly that. In Wentzy's footage, marchers hurl bowls and baggies and urns full of dead friends' cremation ashes over the gates of the White House and onto the lawn, translating into action a marriage of personal and political motivations that is literally breathtaking. If these are mere gestures, they are, as Mark Fisher wrote, gestures which make clear that "the living, those who love the deceased, are bereaved, furious and undefeated."

reviewed by Wendell Ricketts
Bay Area Reporter June 15,1995


Political Funerals synopsis