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

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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)

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