Thursday, March 21, 2013

LLGFF: Disunited in Anger

Caroline Azar in She Said Boom
You wait 25 years for a documentary on ACT UP and then two come along at once. Most curious. Viewing the more feted How to Survive a Plague, I had a distinct feeling of deja-vu. And well I might, because some footage, indeed entire scenes, is identical to that seen in United in Anger, which I viewed on DVD earlier in the week. It just goes to show the power of editing, because the two films, while focusing on the same time period (1987- ca 1996) and the same locale (the original ACT UP in New York), go off on radically divergent paths.

While United in Anger (dir Jim Hubbard) takes great pains to show the great width and breadth of actions ACT UP undertook and the emphasis on social justice many of its campaigners pursued, David France's How to Survive moves into the narrow stream of one faction of the group, the Treatment and Data Committee, and its quest to get drugs fast-tracked through the bureaucracy. But, drugs for whom?

In effect, it ends up being the split that devastated the group, between what came to be characterised as the angry HIV-positive white boys and everyone else. I must say that after viewing How to Survive, I felt curiously unmoved. After seeing United in Anger, I felt a great sense of pride: it was a struggle I participated in, albeit across the country in San Francisco, and I felt I had tapped into my activist heritage seeing the archive footage and hearing people describe their reasons for being there and what it meant to them. By contrast How to Survive seemed highly clinical (in both senses of the word) and a bit smug: "We did this", said its small band of protagonists at the end. Neither film really acknowledges the grassroots nature of ACT UP. It was never centralised, but each chapter had its own methods, issues and strategies, which came together brilliantly at the VIth International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco in 1990 (an episode skipped in United and reduced to a conference speech in How to Survive). It laid the groundwork for many other activist movements, including Queer Nation and to some extent Riot Grrrl, as well.

Activism seems to be having a cinematic revival at this festival, and I wonder if that means the community is awaking from its long slumber. I had two more excursions into reminiscence, with the documentaries Lesbiana and She Said Boom. The first is Myriam Fougere's recollection of lesbian separatist culture in the 1970s and 80s: women's land, womyn's festivals, etc. I wondered if there would be arguments afterward in the Q & A but everyone seemed quite respectful and impressed by the film, which featured recent interviews with women Fougere had first met 25 years ago on her travels as an artist along the Eastern Seaboard of North America. So, there was a lot of material from her hometown of Quebec, as well as New York and the southern states. Women's land still exists, but it seems to have become retirement communities for the Second Wave. I don't know whether to be pleased or depressed.

But, to end on a high note, She Said Boom. Swoon. Kevin Hegge has done a fine job of memorialising Toronto's foremost queer punk feminist band, Fifth Column, who emerged alongside the advent of homocore (a movement named by band member GB Jones). I had no idea what a turbulent history the band had, with members coming and going and a prickly relationship between core members Jones and singer Caroline Azar (a marriage proposal was mooted and rejected at some point. Ouch.).

These days, Hegge revealed, the former members of the band don't speak. But their attempts to ally feminist politics with cinematic and artistic points of view, while positioning themselves in the punk scene take some beating. I do believe this day at the festival pretty much covered my twenties.

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