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Making United in Anger: A History of ACT UP

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In 2001, when Sarah Schulman and I co-founded the ACT UP Oral History Project, ACT UP was largely erased from public memory. It lived in the hearts and minds of those who had fought the AIDS epidemic, but there was no easily available information, no renewed public discussion of the achievements of the AIDS activist movement. In an attempt to redress that loss, we have interviewed 128 surviving members of ACT UP and made the transcripts and video clips from those interviews available on our website, actuporalhistory.org.

These interviews complemented the collection of AIDS activist video at the New York Public Library. The collection consists of over 1,000 hours of raw footage and finished tapes made by over 30 collectives and individual videomakers. The footage has been preserved and made freely available for viewing at the library to researchers, historians, students, and anyone else who might be interested.

Sarah and I have traveled to universities, libraries, community centers, and conferences around the world to show excerpts of this material in order to encourage writers, filmmakers, and institutions to use these resources. Two prominent shows, one at Harvard University and one at the White Columns Gallery in New York, made the material even better known. As a result, as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of ACT UP this month, there is a critical mass of interest and new work being made about ACT UP, including my own film, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, which premiered last month at the Museum of Modern Art.

I started making this film 25 years ago, 10 years ago, or three years ago, depending on how you look at it.

I first filmed ACT UP at the Lesbian & Gay Pride March in New York in June 1987. In the early 1980s, when AIDS first began devastating the gay community, I began thinking about making a film about AIDS but was stymied because I had no intention of elbowing my way into hospital rooms to show people at their most vulnerable and victimized, as the mainstream media were doing. In 1984 my ex-lover, the filmmaker Roger Jacoby, was diagnosed with AIDS. I filmed him during the last year and a half of his life. When ACT UP came along with its flamboyantly visual style of politics, I weaved these two elements together to create my film Elegy in the Streets.

I continued to film ACT UP over the years with my 16-millimeter camera, but the real heroic effort of documenting the AIDS activist movement was carried on by the dozens of AIDS activist videomakers whose footage appears in United in Anger. They worked in collectives such as Testing the Limits, DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television), and as individuals. This footage is a historical resource of immense value, and I am exceedingly grateful to the many videomakers who allowed me to utilize their work in United in Anger. The on-the-ground, in-the-action footage made it possible to evoke what it was like to be in the midst of an ACT UP demonstration, and what it was like to be in an ACT UP meeting. As I worked on the film, I always felt that there was a community intelligence that shaped it and made it possible.

The other element that allowed United in Anger to be made is the communal knowledge and historical analysis that comes out of the interviews that form the ACT UP Oral History Project. I used excerpts from the interviews throughout the film to provide a more complex, fuller understanding of ACT UP, and to help viewers understand the unique combination of hard work and sheer intelligence that made ACT UP so effective.

I began intensely editing United in Anger about three years ago and finished it at the end of 2011. What I have tried to convey in the film is the urgency of people who, battling a deadly epidemic that threatened their lives, their culture, and their community, chose to fight back and remake the world.

To learn more about United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, please visit the film's website, unitedinanger.com.

To commemorate its 25th anniversary, ACT UP will be demonstrating on Wall Street on April 25 at 11 a.m., demanding a tax on Wall Street to fund AIDS research. For more information, visit facebook.com/events/208718522568785.