Jim Hubbard: Framing ACT UP activists

In March 1987,  the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was formed in New York as a response to the lack of U.S. government action and mainstream media coverage on the AIDS crisis. UNITED IN ANGER: A HISTORY OF ACT UP is a new feature-length documentary that puts the audience on the ground with activists taking direct action. We interviewed the documentary filmmaker Jim Hubbard about the film and his role in the movement.

re_activism: What was the catalyst for you making United in Anger?

Ultimately, the catalyst was for me to have my say about ACT UP.  The twin purposes of the film were to put ACT UP into mainstream history and to inspire additional activism.  Miraculously, both seem to be happening.  Nevertheless, to take your question literally, the more personal reason for making the film is that I have been intimately involved with ACT UP for 25 years now. That involvement has been as a filmmaker – capturing it on film and video, helping to archive others’ videotapes and creating the ACT UP Oral History Project.  It seemed natural for me, as a filmmaker, to make an extended, self-contained statement about ACT UP.

re_activism: The documentary intertwines a diversity of stories and archive material, how did decide what to include?

The editing process is really complicated and what one ultimately creates doesn’t always correspond to one’s original conception.  I always knew that film would make extensive use of archival material and the interviews from the ACT UP Oral History Project.  From the beginning, I had a basic notion of which actions would be included, but the editing process determined the narrative and emotional arcs of the film.  Often, the footage wouldn’t support the telling of one story or another.  I’m confronting this issue today.  I promised to edit a short video on the Kiss-In at St. Vincent’s Hospital for a screening on Sunday.  The footage is compelling, but messy and it’s extremely difficult to cut it down while giving enough information for the audience to understand it.  I am remembering why it didn’t get into the film.  Needle exchange didn’t get in the film for the same reason and that was a much more important campaign.  Ultimately, it’s a crafting process, creating a whole, balancing what’s important and what’s possible.

re_activism: Consequently, did the activists have any control over how you framed their stories?

We did a large number of test screenings to find out what was working and what needed to be clarified.  We re-fashioned the film based on those screenings.  We gathered lots of opinions, but ultimately I am responsible for the film and controlled everything.  My editor, Ali Cotterill, of course, had a lot to do with how the film was put together and shaped and in that sense she was the only other person who had any control over the final film.

re_activism: When producing the documentary, did you feel a part of the movement? Was there ever a tension between you as a filmmaker and you as an activist?

I felt a responsibility to the movement to tell its story as truthfully and as complexly as I could.  About the ACT UP Oral History Project, Sarah and I always say that we are not ethnographers, we are not anthropologists, we are not historians, we are members of a community preserving our own history.  I am not a propagandist, so I never felt any tension between being a filmmaker and being an activist.  Filmmaking has always been my role in the movement.  In my earlier films, which are experimental and metaphoric, I tried to show the beauty and the poetic nature of the gay and AIDS movements and to explore their meanings within the larger world.  This was a more direct film, so there was always the possibility that I would hesitate to show some of ACT UP’s faults and failures and there would be that tension between my responsibilities as a filmmaker and my desire to move the activism forward.  I largely resolved that by determining to make a film about ACT UP’s successes, while acknowledging that not every decision was correct, everything had its complications, and that underlying it all was the anger over so many deaths.

re_activism: You describe the documentary as ‘a history of ACT UP’ and have previously worked on an oral history project with ACT UP. What do you think the purpose and impact of documenting historic activism is?

To show that a small group of determined individuals can change the world.  And to mark for all time that, in the face of a truly evil government response, the shameful neglect of the mainstream media and the yawning indifference of the majority, a small group of people fought back.

re_activism: You originally started filming the project over 25years, why did you decide to finish it now? 

It felt more like the film decided to finish itself now.  The editing process took about 4 years.  If I were a faster editor, it might have been taken a year less.  If I had decided to refine certain aspects of the film, it could have taken a year longer.  For better or worse, I decided that this is it.

re_activism: Do you think United in Anger, and more generally documentary practice has the potential to reach a significant audience beyond people who would already care?

It has the potential, but I’ve learned that whether it lives up to that potential depends on larger political forces.  I can do all that is possible to get the film out there, but if people don’t want to show it, its reach will be limited.  This film will not be on television because its argument for radical democracy is too dangerous.  Likewise many important film festivals rejected the film because of their allegiance to the political status quo.

However, it’s being shown in many places – universities, queer and general film festivals, community screenings – and is reaching people who might not have seen it otherwise and they are responding to its political and historical message.

re_activism: Watch the United in Anger: A History of ACT UP trailer below

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