(Re) United in Anger, an interview with Jim Hubbard
I was lucky enough to interview Jim Hubbard before the LA premiere of his documentary United in Anger at Outfest . The film is a history of ACT UP New York that draws on archival footage and the 130+ interviews and counting that Jim filmed for The ACT UP Oral History Project . The full screening at Outfest was a mix of people who lived the history and those encountering it for the first time. (Re)ignited political rage rippled through the rest of the festival. I overheard and participated in many conversations about the past, present and future of AIDS, queer politics and resistance to capitalism more generally. Talking to Jim provided insights into strategies of filmic, archival, and embodied forms of activism; and the ways in which these modes inform each other.
Martabel Wasserman: When I interviewed you in 2009, one of the things we talked about was the commodification of gay liberation, for example in the changing nature of pride parades, which you have been documenting since 1979 [see film Two Marches 1991]. You said your response to this process [of commodification of activism] is historical filmmaking. I wanted to ask you how the idea of using historical footage as a form of present day activism has played out for you during the past three years of making United in Anger.
Jim Hubbard: Using history as activism in a literal sense is one of the purposes of this film. I want to inspire additional activism, whether it’s around AIDS or any other progressive issue. The way the film is made shows all the work that goes into demonstrations: the meetings, the graphics, ultimately the filmmaking. All of those nuts and bolts issues of organizing are in the film to serve as a blueprint for further activism. It’s a very self-conscious part of the film.
MW: How is this film a departure from your experimental filmmaking background?
JH: The first and most obvious way is that it is video and not film. And its not hand processed. There are a couple shots from Elegy in the Streets that I had to a get a good transfer of. Now I finally have a DVD copy of the film that I am not embarrassed to show in public. It inspired me to get my other films transferred properly, because that’s the way they are going to be shown in the future. There are so few venues that can show 16mm right now. Although my film Stop the Movie (Cruising)  was shown last week on Super 8 in a bar on Christopher Street. It was great seeing it that way.
MW: How do you think your practice as a video/film activist has changed in light of recent events and shifts in technology?
JH: Well I have never actually thought of myself as a video activist. Its kind of ironic that I am the one, well not the only one, preserving ACT UP’s history and the videotapes because I was filming on 16mm and I was quite a bit older than most of the video activists. So even though we knew each other and always had friendly relations, it was clear that I wasn’t part of that. I wasn’t in the collective.
MW: How do you think your work is different than the video activist’s approach?
JH: What I was trying to do with the 16mm films I made at the time was to a step back and to ask: what is the meaning of this? what is the personal meaning? what is the cultural meaning? The video activists were working on a much more direct and urgent basis. They were trying to make work that dealt with the issues that were important right that second. What is really interesting is how well the work has held up. The urgency that existed in the moment is conveyed. Clearly its not the same urgency now, but you get that sense. But I did try to adhere to the principals of AIDS activist video when I was making United in Anger.
MW: What are those principals?
JH: One is that there are no voiceovers telling you what to think. I think that is a really important aspect of it. You present the material as directly as possible, despite always being mediated through one’s feelings/thoughts/position, to invite the audience to actively participate in deciding what to think. Often I will have people say things that I don’t necessarily agree with. It’s provocative to have the audience wonder if you agree with that person or not. I think the audience needs to be questioning things in documentaries and not just relating to the characters.
This is not a five-character talking head documentary. There are dozens of people who get their say in it, because ACT UP was a mass movement and that was always the case. An important aspect of ACT UP was education; everyone could speak about the issues. So if someone stuck a microphone in your face you would be able to answer the questions intelligently, with facts and with an analysis of the issues. If people become characters in the movie, the people who are shown most often, it is because those are the people who had interesting, relevant things to say. Different people rose to the occasion at different times. That is also what the film is about. It’s the group and zeitgeist, there are no leaders in the sense that one or two people are deciding what’s important and telling people what to think. People became leaders when they rose to the occasion.
MW: How did the objectives of the film lead to different formal decision making processes then you normally engage with? What are the objectives of making this type of documentary compared to working on the ACT UP Oral History Project?
JH: At one point early on in the process I thought I was going to make The Sorrow and the Pity [Marcel Ophüls, 1969] version and that it was going to be really long and tell everything. I realized even The Sorrow and the Pity doesn’t tell the whole story; it’s actually about a very small aspect of the Holocaust. It’s about how one medium size city reacted to the war. I realized United in Anger was going to be a very concise working out of ACT UP’s history.
I edited a version of the film and took it to a certain point. I always knew that someone who hadn’t been immersed in the topic for 30 years had to work on it to make it understandable to people who didn’t live through it. I took it as far as I could and then gave it over to Ali Cotterill, who then edited the film. The interesting thing about my version is that is was almost all archival footage. Ironically enough, in spite of the fact that at the point I had spent nine years working on the ACT UP Oral History Project. I felt that the images alone could tell the story. If I were making an experimental film, that’s how it would have been. We began a process where she would ask me what I was trying to convey in a shot or series of shots and then we would go and try to find someone to say that.
It details six major actions. For each of the actions we had to explain the intentions and then what came out of the action. That was the very basic working process.
MW: Did you want to make it more “accessible” than your other work?
JH: I want this to be on TV, in movie theaters, and festivals gay and straight.
MW: Do you feel like you had to make any compromises to fit in those parameters?
JH: Interestingly I don’t think that is what the compromises were about. The advantage of editing the actions with an experimental eye is that when you see the film you feel like you are in the midst of the action. You get the sense of being there.
MW: Does that in turn implicate the audience? If there isn’t a distance between the audience and the action, one is more likely to be compelled to see it as something that is in the present.
JH: I think people do. There is that Brechtian distantiation that goes on with the interviews. You’re in the moment and then you have to step back and analyze it. That mimics the process of what it was like to be in ACT UP. It was organizing, participating, getting arrested, then stepping back the next minute and asking what do we have to do next? what worked? what didn’t work? how do we do it better? The urgency of the situation demanded that.
MW: Can you talk a little bit about the resurgence of ACT UP? It obviously never went away but there has been a wave of recent activity.
JH: Yeah it’s great. ACT UP New York, at least to a certain extent, has been revivified. People in San Francisco are starting a new chapter there. ACT UP Philly never went away. The film is showing in Philadelphia tonight they are planning on making announcements and passing around a hat before and after the film to try to raise money to get people to the AIDS conference in Washington next week [July 22-27, 2012]. There will actually be two protest marches.
MW: Last interview we did you talked about how you have observed through filmmaking the changing ways people and groups perform in political actions. I was wondering what you have been noticing at recent protests, Like the OWS and ACT UP Robinhood Tax March on Wall Street? How did it differ from ACT UP actions on Wall Street 25 years ago?
JH: First I have to say there is a certain irony that I was editing this movie three blocks from Zuccotti Park and hardly ever got down there.
MW: How did that make you think about the relationship between film making as activism and street activism?
JH: I don’t think of editing a film as activism, I think it supports activism. Even though I think they are both really important, making films is not going to change the government the way a demonstration can. I am much more comfortable and better at making films than I am at demonstrating.
MW: But the goal of the film is get people in the streets?
JH: One of the goals. The other is to put ACT UP into US mainstream history where it rightfully belongs. I was worried that this film was much too specific, that being about a certain time and place it couldn’t do that. But in showing the film in various places, I have been very pleased to hear that it does. People say afterwards that they want to go out into the street and demonstrate right this minute. I think people from very far away can feel connected to it.
We did a screening at a gallery in Ramallah. Because Sarah [Schulman] is so involved in the BDS movement [Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel] we had to abide by it. So we only showed it in grassroots, non-government funded venues. Someone in the audience said we should be showing at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque for a 1,000 people instead, even though a lot of people wouldn’t agree with us. Meanwhile he was sitting there and disagreeing with me and the theater [the Tel Aviv Cinematheque] actually has 420 seats. What you loose in the quantity of people you gain in the intensity of experience. A smaller audience is going to feel much more connected to the film and so that couldn’t have been reproduced there. And people would see it there that would never have seen it at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque. First of all, the people in Ramallah are stuck in Ramallah. The machinations they have to go through to get out of that place are mind bogglingly difficult.
We showed at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Jerusalem and an anarchist vegan collective restaurant in Tel Aviv and the Women’s Center in Haifa. Those people wouldn’t have seen it in Tel Aviv either. In Haifa the projector overheated two-thirds of the way through the film, so we had the Q&A in the middle.
I don’t know what your relationship to Israel is.
MW: I support BDS. I am not super involved but I stay informed.
JH: I avoided talking about it all my life because I don’t want to hear everyone’s right wing opinions.
MW: It’s another issue that is invisible.
JH: The embattled situation that leftist Jewish Israelis and Palestinians are in is dire.
MW: What did you think of the Robinhood Protest [ACT UP at 25 protest on Wall Street]?
JH: The 25th anniversary of ACT UP, for those of us that were there, was like a reunion. We were seeing people we hadn’t seen in a long time. There was not as much interaction with the younger people or the Occupy people. I am hoping that all those people being in the same place at the same time will have a positive effect. We will see.
MW: Do you have any criticisms or concerns about OWS as someone who has been an observer of social movements?
JH: I feel like I don’t want to judge OWS yet. I don’t feel like it’s over, the way a lot of people, certainly in the mainstream media, would like it to be. I think that it’s the kind of movement that is going to have a long-term effect. The problems of ACT UP and the problems of Occupy in a sense are completely opposite. ACT UP had to be so specific, they had to know more than the people in charge. They had to be able to say, “this is how you should be doing it because this will serve people with AIDS.” The problem was to convince those people on the other side to do what’s right. With Occupy, the problem is getting across the notion that whole system is rotten. I think they are right in not coming up with specific solutions to it. I think that will limit it. In one of the Q&As someone suggested that Occupy is in a sense using the affinity group system that was so important for ACT UP. All of those working groups will come up with more specific actions. I don’t know how you force the capitalist system to change. There is no one in charge, just all those evil people doing what they do. That might be another reason why being more specific wouldn’t work for Occupy.
MW: Because its about capitalism as a whole.
MW: But ACT UP was addressing the specific consequences of capitalism as they related to AIDS.
JH: Right. Because Occupy exploded near the end of the editing process I became so aware of Wall Street and how many times its mentioned in the film. Back then I was always wondering why everyone kept going back to Wall Street, thinking it’s really the government that’s the problem. And of course there were plenty of actions against the government. But there was this consistency of going back to Wall Street. Even though the pharmaceutical companies were not doing their job, I could never understand how that was the crux of the matter. It was only in retrospect that I realized that this was a crisis of capitalism. If we hadn’t lived in a pure capitalist society then people would have been taken care. It would have been treated as a medical emergency. There wouldn’t be 30 million people infected in Africa. I think that is Ronald Reagan’s fault, because he ignored it, all these other people felt they could ignore it also. The Reagan administration’s response was seen as a model for malign neglect.
MW: Do you think that history is still invisible to most people?
JH: It appears that way yes. In my limited experience showing the film.
MW: People are shocked?
JH: Lots of people come up and say, “well I’ve heard about ACT UP but I didn’t know they did all of these things.” Then there are the millions of people who have not heard about ACT UP at all. We are going to try to reach them, but we’ll see.
MW: Because of Occupy, because of it being 25 years since ACT UP was founded, it’s a fertile moment for my generation to rediscover the history. So in a sense it feels very present more than it did even a few years ago, in terms of people’s knowledge and interest in it.
JH: I think that is the case. I really do. Sarah and I feel like we can take a certain amount of credit for it. What the ACT UP Oral History Project did besides shining a light on it, was to create a critical mass of information, so that people could study it.
MW: What are you working on next?
JH: I have a full time job promoting this film.
Jim is the director of nineteen films including Elegy in the Streets (1989), Two Marches(1991), The Dance (1992) and Memento Mori (1995). He is co-founder of The ACT UP Oral History Project, MIX- the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival and created the AIDS Activist Video Collection at the New York Public Library. He curated Fever in the Archive. AIDS Activist Videotapes from the Royal S. Marks Collectionfor the Guggenheim Museum in New York and co-curated Another Wave. Recent Global Queer Cinema at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.