GAZE Film Festival: How to Survive a Plague

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John Moran on a film chronicling the gay community’s response in the USA to the AIDS epidemic, which screened at the recent GAZE Film Festival.

How to Survive a Plague (2012, David France) chronicles the gay community’s response in the USA to the AIDS epidemic, focusing on the group ACT UP, based in New York, from 1987 to 1996. France worked as a journalist in the 1980s and ‘90s. He weaves together the stories of several key individuals prominent in a campaign that depended on the participation of thousands of people.

 

The film opens in New York in 1987, year 6 of the AIDS epidemic. France identities New York as its epicentre.  Ed Koch, the mayor, attempts to answer criticisms of New York City’s official response to the crisis. He tries to defend his characterisation of protesters, seen chanting, “Healthcare is a right,” as being both fascist and concerned citizens. On 24th March 1987, ACT UP stages its first protest on Wall Street. Activists stage a kiss-in protest at St Vincent’s Hospital, demanding sensitivity training for gay patients.

 

France then introduces activists such as Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, Bob Rafsky, Jim Eigo, David Barr, Gregg Bordowitz, Larry Kramer, Iris Long, Mark Harrington and many others to recount how they became part of a grassroots campaign to raise awareness, to learn about the disease, to fight it, and to challenge their representatives and government agency officials to address the issue and take appropriate steps to rectify bureaucratic problems. France mostly uses footage shot by activists, interspersing it with more recent interviews when appropriate.

 

The contribution of some figures is particularly noteworthy. Iris Long, a retired chemist, came out to explain the processes employed by the Federal Drugs Administration, by the drugs companies, and the like. Mark Harrington, a film archivist, draws on such knowledge to put together a glossary to explain different aspects of AIDS and the treatments then available. Peter Staley, a bond trader on Wall Street, quits his job to become fully involved in the campaign to “act up, fight back, fight AIDS”. Bob Rafsky, a father who came out at 40 in the midst of the crisis, challenges Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential election, putting the AIDS crisis firmly on the agenda. The activists, telling their stories from archive footage, become concerned with whether they will live to see a drug. Fighting the certainty of death and their brave struggle to overcome it provides a compelling emotional hook.

 

The suffering that its victims went through comes across in harrowing images of frail young men’s bodies and the treatment of lesions and Kaposi’s sarcoma.  Appearances by Ray Nazzaro, an artist, as Jesus Christ in sequences outlining the protesters’ challenging of the Roman Catholic Church’s position, and later offering sound advice on sexual health, brings both humour and pathos.

 

The AIDS crisis and the efforts by the activists to address it properly provides an interesting insight into contemporary American society. The narratives it broaches include gay liberation; access to healthcare; government responsibility at federal, state and municipal levels; increasing trust in science and the reliability of the market to provide the correct drugs; the culture wars, involving the hardening of conservative positions, and a growing gulf between left and right. It’s complex terrain with much to cover, and France demonstrates considerable skill in putting human faces and stories on the devastating effects actions taken by powerful players can have within such debates.

 

How to Survive a Plague almost veers into treating the AIDS crisis as having ended before reminding us that four people continue to die from AIDS every minute and that 5,500 die daily because they cannot afford the cost of available treatments. Oscar-nominated as Best Feature Documentary, his film is a call to action.
 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwhFS1mUaVY

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GAZE Film Festival: Different from the Others

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Film festivals do two things: they showcase the newest feature films and they celebrate the best of past cinema. This year, GAZE featured a fascinating film from Weimar Germany, Different from the Others (1919, Richard Oswald). It tells the story of a violinist, Paul Körner, who falls in love with a young male student, Kurt Sivers, and then becomes the victim of blackmail.

 

Magnus Hirschfeld co-wrote and starred in the film, practically playing himself, a sexologist. Hirschfeld developed the “third sex” theory and was part of the early 20th century movement in northern Europe that sought a new understanding of homosexuality and campaigned for the removal of penal provisions such as Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code. He participated in the production of many educational films that addressed issues such as venereal disease, abortion and prostitution. When the German Empire fell after the First World War, Hirschfeld worked with director Richard Oswald to create Different from the Others, to expose the provisions as a blackmailer’s charter, and to condemn homophobic society. It was a time of revolutionary hope and potential, soon quashed by the rise of Nazism.

 

Like many historical films, the primary interest and virtues of Different from the Others lie in the historical context in which the film existed. Vito Russo noted that Christopher Isherwood, whose stories form the basis of Cabaret, remembered attending screenings of the film that the Nazis broke up. In Vienna, a man fired a revolver into the audience, wounding several patrons.  The Nazis destroyed all prints of the film when they came to power. They then used the provisions of Paragraph 175 to imprison homosexuals, forcing them to wear a pink triangle (instead of a yellow star, the subject of the play and the film Bent). When the war ended, the gay men who survived the concentration camps remained imprisoned. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman tell that story in their documentary Paragraph 175. The Nazis attempt to remove gay men from their society and to remove any record of anything that advocated tolerance or justice for them. So, Different from the Others remains as an important cultural and historical artefact that testifies to an early and important gay liberation movement.

 

The Filmmuseum München pieced together the film screened at GAZE from a print found in Ukraine during the 1970s. In this version, they fill gaps with intertitles and stills. What survives is a film that features static shots and theatrical staging that seem so outdated to (post)modern viewers. But the story is a powerful one, and it becomes more absorbing as it progresses. It features an early performance by Conrad Veidt, who plays Paul Körner, the lead character.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, filmed shortly afterwards, made Veidt a star. He became famous for his films with Valerie Hobson and as the evil Grand Vizier in The Thief of Baghdad. His character is the film’s tragic hero; the villain is not just the blackmailer, but, as Hirschfeld stresses, society’s injustices arising from a misplaced condemnation of homosexuals.

 

The Hirschfeld Centre, opened in 1979, was the first gay community centre in Dublin, honouring the importance of his work in pleading for justice and the repeal of oppressive laws. The laws that criminalised homosexual acts between men in Ireland were only abolished in 1993, a year before the final repeal of Paragraph 175. The story behind Different from the Others reminds us that we cannot be complacent with regard to freedom to create such works, particularly at a time when works that “promote” homosexuality have again become the subject of criminal sanctions in Russia and when the death penalty continues to be imposed in other countries as a punishment for homosexual acts. In Ireland, the Equal Status Act provisions exempt the teaching profession, and the fear of being outed and losing one’s employment and status remains all too real.

 

The Dublin Film Qlub presented the film with the assistance of the Goethe Institute. The Film Qlub organisers had previously run a season of silent films from the early 20th century, emphasising that Different from the Others represents a fascinating and insightful range of filmmaking that merits further critical and public attention.

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Interview: David Mullane, GAZE International LGBT Film Festival programmer

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GAZE International LGBT Film Festival 2013 (1 – 5 August, Light House Cinema, Dublin)

Brian Lloyd chats to festival programmer David Mullane about the GAZE International LGBT Film Festival, which kicks off tomorrow.

It seems shocking to think of it, but homosexuality in Ireland was decriminalised only twenty years ago. “The GAZE Film Festival’s been running for twenty-one years and this will be the twentieth anniversary of decriminalisation. The timing’s a little strange,” remarks David Mullane, the festival’s programmer. The festival – Ireland’s only LGBT film festival – runs from August 1st to August 5th at Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield, Dublin. The coincidence of the two events – twenty years of decriminilisation and the festival – doesn’t, however, mean the two are linked. “We do have a number of screenings about LGBT history, sure, but it’s not just documentaries or retrospectives about that, as well. That said, one of our big events is a free screening of The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, the RTÉ documentary by Bill Hughes.” First broadcast in 2000 on RTE, the documentary follows the history of the Irish gay community from Oscar Wilde to decriminalisation. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on the future of the LGBT community in Ireland, with some of the original contributors of the documentary taking part. The director of the documentary, Bill Hughes, will also present the screening as well.

“Every film in this festival could be about gay filmmakers but the topics could be about, say, milk pasteurisation or something like that. So, really, a gay film is one that’s going to entertain a gay audience. There are some films that are about gay people, but they’re not doing gay things necessarily.” David goes on to talk about The Man Behind The Throne, the story of choreographer Vincent Paterson and his work with some of the most famous music artists of the last thirty years. But do you necessarily have to be a member of the LGBT community to enjoy and attend the festival? “Definitely not,” David replies, firmly. “These film festivals started because there was a lack of representation for gay people on screen. So it was aimed at gay people. That’s getting better. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting there. In order to survive as a film festival, we need to appeal to everyone. We have Pussy Riot – that’s the Irish premiere of the documentary. That’s a pretty mainstream documentary that everyone can and should see.”

But now, society is slowly becoming more and more accepting of gay culture and society, is there still a need for film festivals that deal only in LGBT films and issues? “If films like these aren’t shown here, they probably won’t be seen anywhere else in Ireland and they’re worth seeing. Firstly for entertainment value because they’re great films. But secondly because they deal with LGBT issues. We’ve got documentaries from Cameroon and Jamaica, where there’s serious homophobic and human rights issues. We don’t see ourselves as a political event, we’re a LGBT social and cultural event.”

As mentioned, the festival runs from August 1st to August 5th, kicking off with the opening night gala premiere of Animals. David describes it as “Gus Van Sant mixing Donnie Darko and Seth McFarlane’s Ted“, and is David’s favourite film of the year with director Marcal Fores. James Franco’s controversial Interior. Leather Bar also will feature at the Festival, which David admits he isn’t sure if it’s a documentary or a film. Another highlight is Wonder Women that explores and traces the legacy of both Wonder Woman and other female characters in pop culture, comic books and science fiction films throughout the last century. The director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan will be in attendance, followed by a panel discussion led by Jim Carroll.

In all, the GAZE Film Festival promises to be an inspiring social event that truly deserves to go from strength to strength. Tickets and a full schedule are available at GAZE.ie.

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