Tuesday, July 15, 2008

AIDS Activists In Cinema

In the 25+ years since the onset of the AIDS epidemic, one of the business sectors most vociferous in its support of AIDS nonprofits and safe sex education has been the arts. The reason should be obvious. Not only do many gay people work in the arts, as an industry the arts have suffered a tremendous loss of talent as a result of the disease. If there haven't been too many full-length features about artists involved in AIDS prevention, it's probably because most of those artists are now dead.

Last month, the folks at Frameline presented a curious documentary about gay filmmaker Derek Jarman on the last day of their festival. A collaborative effort between Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton, Derek focused not only on the artistic achievements of the filmmaker who brought us such homoerotic feature films as Sebastiane (1976), Caravaggio (1986), Edward II (1991) and Wittgenstein (1993) -- in addition to numerous music videos -- it also focused on his political activism.

When Jarman became infected with HIV, he turned the camera on himself, documenting the progression of his illness while continuing to work on full-length features and music videos. Much of the narration comes from a long interview that was once conducted with Jarman (as well as comments by Swinton, a close colleague and long-time friend). Although certainly not the most gripping documentary ever made, this film does capture the heady times of a group of young artists (including Jarman, Tilda Swinton, David Hockney and others) as their careers take off and follows them as the disease starts claiming members of their inner circle of friends as well as the community at large.

Credit goes to Jarman, who recognized his status as a film rebel and used his skills and talents to face the disease head on. After all these years of living with AIDS all around us, it is still gut wrenching to witness the initial robust beauty of a young man folllowed by the inevitable physical decay as his body succumbs to AIDS. Because some of the clips in this documentary are from old home movies, the overall quality of the experience takes an unfortunate hit.

Coming up at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is a much more entertaining and decidely in-your-face documentary about AIDS prevention focused on the safe sex education efforts of Pieter Dirk Uys, a South African entertainer who has made it his business to teach children about the dangers of the HIV virus using language they can understand while shaping the experience in a way that educates them without boring them or talking down to them. Most amazing is the fact that the film was the inspiration of a 15-year-old Australian boy who heard Dirk Uys speak to a school group and decided to make this documentary.

For a teenager, it's quite a remarkable piece of film work. Dirk Uys's mother had fled to Capetown from Germany in the 1930s. Although she subsequently committed suicide, Pieter and his sister were encouraged to develop their artistic talents from a very young age.

Growing up as a half-Jewish, half-Afrikaaner anti-apartheid activist, Dirk Uys focused his wit and growing anger on becoming a political satirist. Imagine someone with the bluntness of the late George Carlin, the wardrobe of Ben Schatz and the following of Dame Edna and you get an idea of what kind of social catalyst this man became for South Africans.

The film has surprising charms, including watching Archbishop Desmond Tutu doubling over in laughter as he watches Dirk Uys impersonate him. Dirk Uys's devastating characterization of South Africa's pro-Apartheid former President, P.W. Botha, draws easy laughs from adults and children alike.

What lit the fire in Dirk Uys to make AIDS education his personal cause was South African President Thabo Mbeki's total cluelessness about the disease, especially when Mbeki announced that he didn't know any people who had died of AIDS. On top of that, Mbeki's minister of health, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang's medical ignorance (she was eventually forced to resign after claiming that AIDS could be treated with a combination of garlic, lemon, beetroot and African potatoes) only added fuel to the fire of Dirk Uys's outrage. Considering the political massacres in Darfur and Rwanda, many South Africans were shocked when Dirk Uys used the "G" word -- genocide -- to describe the South African government's reaction to the AIDS crisis. In short: "If we don't do anything, then the situation will take care of itself."

Some of the racist attitudes expressed by pro-Apartheid South Africans will remind Americans of the treatment of African Americans in the United States. Those whose lives have been touched by the AIDS crisis will well remember how the U.S. Government tried to avoid even mentioning the word "AIDS" during the Reagan administration (even as close personal friends of the President and his wife --like Roy Cohn -- succumbed to the disease).

Dirk Uys's courage has made him a role model to people like Nelson Mandela, who expresses his admiration for the performer in Darling! The Pieter Dirk Uys Story. But what really strikes the viewer is Dirk Uys's skill with words ("Hypocrisy is the Vaseline of political intercourse,") as well as his intense efforts to discover from local health workers what language will be most effective when addressing children in nearby schools.

Strongly recommended!

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