Confronting History

August 7, 2013

It is not enough to mourn the dead or memorialize the survivors; we must confront history in all its painful, guilt-inducing glory and use it as a guidepost for our behavior today.

from “How to Whitewash a Plague” by Hugh Ryan (The New York Times, 2013)

how-to-survive-a-plague-3[image from How to Survive a Plague]

This excellent article reminded me that I hadn’t posted closing thoughts on my year’s film watching project. JRC and I watched a series of AIDS documentaries this year, as both a personal and societal project. Reactions to this crisis (for better and mostly for worse) shaped our parents and our generation, much of LGBTQ+ experience, and the situation of medical activism, and we wanted to understand it better.  I hadn’t watched many documentaries prior to this year; one outcome has been that I’ve learned better how to watch them (see my latest Examined Life article).

We Were Here (2011) and How to Survive a Plague (2012) give the most straightforward discussions of the horror and confusion of the outbreak.  We Were Here focuses on five individuals who lived or worked near Castro Street in San Francisco.  It masterly weaves together the voices of straight and LGBTQ+ individuals, of medical professionals and community members.  Each person fights the battles that are given to her to fight, whether it be disease, medical abandonment, political whitewashing, or individual prejudice.  Of all the pieces I watched this year, this articulated best the horror of an disease that is unknown, that so quickly spreads and destroys. It unapologetically shows the culture of hysteria, quarantine and discrimination that politically and socially grew up around the AIDS outbreak.  We Were Here hints at the issues of medical activism that are fleshed out in How to Survive a Plague.

David France’s documentary tells a similar story on a different coast, discussing the outbreak of AIDS in New York City. Although it addresses cultural reactions and some personal stories, it focuses on the work of early activists and on the formation of ACT UP–the organization primarily responsible for speeding up the efforts of the FDA and the medical industry to provide research and new drugs. It is an incredible story of the power of self-education, the power of knowledge. There are a lot of angry people shown, and the documentary does an excellent job of showing why.  It’s an antidote to the problem Ryan discusses in his article:

The unfortunate side effect of this continual soft-pedaling of homophobia is that the queer community — our anger, our mistrust, our fear — is rendered incomprehensible to the viewer. If everyone else behaved so well, why were (and are) we so angry?

Before Stonewall (1984) and After Stonewall (1999) weren’t originally on our viewing list, but they ended up being incredibly helpful in providing context for the experience of the LGBTQ+ community in the United States.  The AIDS outbreak in the 70s and 80s didn’t occur in a vacuum, and the larger societal reaction was not out of character with the treatment of the subculture prior to that time (or after, for that matter).

Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993) and Angels in America (2003) are both less about a movement or a societal experience as they are about the experience of individuals (non-fiction and fiction respectively).  I wrote about Silverlake Life last fall; it is still forcing me to consider terrifying questions about dying, the human body and what it really means to love until death. HBO’s miniseries, Angels in America (adapted from Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer winning play), is the only non-documentary on this list.  As we watched films this fall, though, I realized that thinking well about tragedy requires one to walk about in others’ shoes.  Angels in America does this powerfully.  It wrestles with questions of identity, of abandonment, of selfishness and love.  It provides an emotional context for the interviews and images in the documentaries we watched.  It provides, too, a concretely depicted political context for tragedies of the AIDS outbreak.

I cried a lot in front of my TV screen this year. I was, at times, ashamed to be an American, to live in a world with the continued stain of non-action and discrimination. I’m terrified to read articles like Ryan’s (linked to above) that reveal the subtle retelling of our history in a way that alleviates guilt. But, I was also inspired by the moral fortitude of people fighting for their lives and for the lives of people around them.

Ryan writes in “How to Whitewash a Plague”:

Bad history has consequences. I’m not afraid we will forget AIDS; I am afraid we will remember it and it will mean nothing. If we cannot face the root issue — that we let people die because we did not like them — AIDS will become a blip on our moral radar, and this cycle will repeat every time we connect an unpopular group with something that scares us.

Ryan closes his article commenting on the fear that he witnessed on the faces of fellow subway riders as they considered sitting next to individuals of Middle Eastern descent. He rightly connects past cultural patterns with future injustices.

It’s not enough to mourn the past if we are not willing to be honest with ourselves about why it happened as it did.

This is important, people, really important.

R. Card-Hyatt


P.S. These are the last two films on our list …….. which have yet to be watched due to difficulties finding them:

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012)
Vito (2011)


The View from Here

October 26, 2012

N.B. This is a difficult, mature film to watch.  I highly suggest that parents of minors preview the film prior to broader viewings.

One of my students asked me a couple weeks ago about the text we’d been reading in class–a memoir of a child soldier in Sierra Leone (A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah).  After we’d discussed a couple pages, she sighed and looked over at me.  “Ms…why are you having us read such a sad book?”  I replied, saying, “The world is a sad place.”  I expected the fifteen-year old to challenge me, but instead she agreed.  “Yeah Ms.–It’s a true story–but I just really wish it wasn’t.”

A couple days later, after watching the 1993 documentary Silverlake Life: The View from Here, I had to remind myself of this conversation.  The world is a sad place, and it’s important that we listen to its stories.  Even when they’re uncomfortable, we must.  Why?  You ask again.  Because they’re true.

My sister and I are both currently living alone, several states away from each other; we decided to embark on a film watching project together this fall, trying to keep ourselves accountable to watch and discuss good films, despite our busy schedules.  After reading several recent articles, we settled on documentaries addressing the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.  Besides personal interest (our uncle died of AIDS in 1993), we were interested in the way that this epidemic has affected both our parent’s generation and our own generation.  How has it changed the way we view the homosexual community?  How has it changed the way we view medicine, the body, epidemics, etc.?  What can we learn about the way humans die and deal with death?  These are not light topics, by any means, and each documentary we’ve watched and article we’ve read has been a struggle.  Death is hard, and dying of AIDS is particularly hard.  Watching a nation largely fail to love and care for the dying is hard to come to terms with.  But, each conversation we’ve shared about each film has underscored how important it is to hear and interact with these stories.


Silverlake Life: The View from Here is a self-documentary told by an independent filmmaker and professor, Tom Joslin.When he and his partner, Mark Massi, are diagnosed with AIDS, he decides to begin a daily film diary, to chronicle his last months.  The documentary is obviously a pre-digital documentary project.  It doesn’t have the cleanness of our iPhone drenched, YouTube saturated “self-made video” world.  But, it is always obvious that Joslin knows how to set up a shot.  His footage is all-encompassing.  We see him sitting in the car, too exhausted to walk into the grocery store.  We see several of his doctor’s appointments, tense family moments, arguments with friends, happy outings, and even a counseling appointment.  We see conversations, and we see middle of the night strugglings with insomnia.  The desire for the viewer to see his entire life, as it slowly (and rapidly at times) comes to an end is overwhelming.  It is rare to be invited, with such abandonment, into the intimate process of dying.

As death quickly approaches, Massi takes over the filmmaking, and we watch Joslin’s body waste away.  Even weeks later, it is difficult for me to relate these portions of the film.  There is something uniquely awful about the toll that AIDS takes on the human body.  It forces death in one’s face.  It is uncomfortable, in the way that death should be.  Death, the lasting effect of sin on our world, is not comfortable.

Peter Friedman, who finished the documentary after Joslin and Massi died, wrote that the project was a “… perfectly natural thing for Tom to do because as an artist, his way of dealing with just about anything was to make a film about it” (  Besides the ever present questions of how humans deal with death, this film raises questions about the place of art in allowing us to face and comprehend death.  In a startling scene after Joslin’s death, Massi reads a trite book written to “grieving loved ones.”  The pat advice and terrible poetry is set in stark contrast to the film that the viewer has just experienced.  In Silverlake Life, we see instead that emotions are rough, uncut and complicated; death is ugly, and the world does not always make sense.

I hesitate to write more.  This is a film that, more than most, cannot be boiled down to scenes and shots.  It’s a rare glimpse of the most painful part of human existence.  It is a story about the love and commitment required to be present for someone’s last months, days and hours, as you continue battle for your own life.

It raises many questions, some that I’ve already discussed.  But, culturally, it raises, perhaps more uncomfortable questions about society’s past treatment of those with AIDS, how families deal with death, and perhaps, our discomfort with beauty and self-sacrifice obviously displayed  in a homosexual relationship.  In whatever ways this film is uncomfortable for you, as the viewer (and yes, it will be), I strongly urge you to engage with that discomfort.  Why is this hard? is the beginning to many a self-examining conversation.

Massi notes, towards the end of the film, that experiencing Joslin’s last days and death together was transformative for his relationship with Joslin’s mother.  They were united by the common and personal experience of human suffering.  The differences and bitterness that had seemed so large were no longer important.  This kind of transformation is at the heart of each shot, interview, and whispered monologue. Suffering, if we let it, can redeem and transform.