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United In Anger, An ACT UP Documentary Comes To MoMA

First Posted: 02/ 7/2012 8:15 am Updated: 02/ 7/2012 2:17 pm

United In Anger, a new film by producers Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, is the first feature-length documentary to present the history of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (aka ACT UP). As Jim Hubbard wrote in an e-mail, "Before there was Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, there was ACT UP." The documentary focuses on how a small group of men and women came together to take on the people and institutions that were creating mass hysteria around the virus. The viewer witnesses such actions as Seize Control of the FDA, Stop the Church, and Day of Desperation, and is able to get insight into the group’s complex culture.

In the Shadow of the American Dream, David Wojnarowicz wrote, "AIDS is not just asymptomatic muscle boys and kickboxing dykes leading the public fight..." It's bigger than that. Which is why a documentary about this particular direct action group is so important, because we're in dire need of a good history lesson. So we e-mailed Sarah Schulman to get her take on the upcoming film.

HuffPost Arts: Why a documentary now? What about this moment in time makes us ready for United in Anger and how does the importance of memory and responsibility tie into all of this?

Sarah Schulman: Well, actually -- as activists and artists, Jim and I have spent 25 years creating a moment so that we could respond. The context must be built as carefully as the work of art. In 2001 we founded the ACT UP Oral History Project because there was a complete void of knowledge and information about how AIDS activism had transformed AIDS and this nation's attitudes about homosexuality, patients' rights and federal control of treatment. For the past ten years we have not only created a database of interviews with 128 surviving members of ACT UP, but have presevered almost 2000 hours of archival footage. By literally traveling around the country for a decade, bringing this material to communities, universities, media and curriculum, we created a renewed interest in this period and provided the raw materials so that other people could interpret it. Now, as a result of all that work, and two subsequent shows of the Oral History Project materials (one at Harvard and one at White Columns Gallery in New York) it seems as though "the time is right." But we agitated to create that "time" as well as the documentary film that can address all the interest that our work provoked. That is real hands-on cultural activism.

HuffPost Arts: How have audiences responded to the film so far? On the blog, you write that the students she screened it for in Matt Brim's class "get it." Does this mean that there's not as big of a gap between kids today and those growing up during the AIDS crisis in the US?

Sarah Schulman: The film has been adjusted over time in many ways to make it useful to a young audience that doesn't have background information about AIDS, about activism or about activist media. Over the years we showed clips all over the world to diverse audiences and learned from their feedback about what they needed clarified. Questions like "what is the cocktail" or "What does PWA mean" (editor's note: PWA = People With AIDS) helped us make this a work that will function in classrooms for many years to come.

HuffPost Arts: What demands do we still need to make? Where do we go from here?

Sarah Schulman: The global AIDS crisis is a crisis of political will. If the conditions exist for an HIV positive person, who has insurance, clean water and access to medication to lead a full life, then the only reason that these necessities are denied people with HIV and AIDS around the world are the profit designs of global pharmaceuticals, and this could be circumvented by governments if they were willing to truly regulate industry.

New Yorkers: February 16th marks the world premier of United in Anger: A History of ACT UP at the Museum of Modern Art. Get your tickets soon!

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece claimed that the film focuses on seven key AIDS activists; in fact, it focuses on the movement as a whole.
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Filed by Kathleen Massara  |