There are 44 national memorials in the United States, including Grant’s Tomb, Mount Rushmore and the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. You may not know (I didn’t) that AIDS has killed more Americans (500,000) than all the wars since 1900. And yet, filmmaker Andy Abrahams Wilson notes, “Five million people a year visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but hardly anyone knows about the AIDS Memorial. You have to ask the question why, and what can we do to change that.” One tack is the documentary that Wilson is collaborating on with fellow producer Tom Shepard, who cites a goal of Forget Me Not (the working title) as “asking the larger public to take responsibility for the AIDS pandemic by more clearly defining what it means to be a National Memorial.”
Wilson and Shepard are part of an exemplary group of rising documentary makers who have redefined the term “activist filmmaker” for the 21st Century. Wilson’s Under Our Skin (which diligently eviscerated the medical establishment’s lax response to Lyme disease) and Shepard’s Scout’s Honor (which calmly exposed the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay hypocrisy) are educational films in the purest sense, not polemics. They succeed in changing viewers’ minds, in large part, through the casting of everyday people (accidental heroes) as their subjects. At the same time, Shepard and Wilson structure their films to speak both to the group directly affected by the issue at hand and a wider, mainstream audience whose support is essential for attitudes and policies to change. Those skills will certainly come into play with the AIDS Grove doc.
“Our film starts with the story of one person and one death, which is in a way a seed for the National AIDS Memorial,” Wilson explains. “A personal story that becomes universal. It was a group of San Franciscans that were devastated by the losses in their community and wanted to find some way to process and heal their grief. It was a group of landscape architects, and this seemed like the perfect solution. What was unexpected here [is] they weren’t just creating a thing, they were creating a process. Volunteers work once a month in the garden to grow and maintain it. And that in itself, they discovered, was a healing act. That’s gone on to this day, some 20 years later. That’s also precisely where the conflict comes in”
Yes, let’s nip the idea in the bud that Forget Me Not is a feel-good infomercial, or as Wilson puts it, “a compilation of back stories, or people in the present saying wonderful things about a place that means something to them.”
“You have a group of people for whom the Grove is almost an extension of their backyard,” Wilson says. “But now it’s a National Memorial. This just doesn’t belong to San Francisco and it doesn’t just belong to a small group of San Franciscans, but it’s everybody’s. I like to think we were in the right place at the right time to cover this story, and I think this story has resonance beyond the National AIDS Memorial.”
For Shepard, the resonance is historical, political, global and, at the risk of sounding overly grandiose, eternal.
“The government largely didn’t respond to the epidemic because it was hitting marginalized groups,” he says. “So the message that comes out of a National Memorial isn’t for the people who were the most directly affected by the disease, but the larger public. In 30, 50, 100 years, how is an AIDS Memorial going to evoke that experience for future generations? Which isn’t to say that the grove as it’s been and as it was founded isn’t an incredibly profound and unique memorial about healing and sanctuary. But there is a tension about what’s going to happen when those people aren’t around anymore to convey that experience.”
Wilson was initially approached with the idea for a film several years ago by Grove board member Michael Weiss. In the spring of 2009, with Wilson’s attention largely focused on the national rollout and community outreach for Under Our Skin, he invited Shepard to join the team. Shepard was reasonably busy himself with the release of his latest doc, Whiz Kids, which freely adopted the Skin distribution and publicity strategy.
“We were in different part of big projects, so it was a good moment for both of us to start this collaboration,” Shepard says. “It was a pleasure to come in on a project that had largely been shot and had a strong vision, and to look at the material and play some part in finding the structure and helping find the film. Not being the sole person who’s sort of pushing the boulder up the hill and being the sole responsible party. I think Andy and I are pretty complementary in our skills. He shoots his [own] material and he’s a very strong and poetic cinematographer. I tend to spend more of my time in the edit room.”
The fine cut of the film, which has a September date in the Spotlight on Documentaries sidebar of IFP’s Independent Film Week in New York, runs about 70 minutes. The filmmakers believe there’s enough strong material—including footage of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi celebrating her 20th anniversary in Congress in the Grove—for a feature-length piece, but KQED’s commitment to present the film to national PBS necessitates a 56-minute version as well.
We’ve moved pretty far afield from the Grove itself, so let’s stop for a second to smell the roses.
“What drew me to this film in the first place was that it was a living memorial,” Wilson says. “It wasn’t just that it was a memorial. It wasn’t just about the issue of AIDS. Nature reflects our natural process of living and dying and regeneration. So within a grove, a garden, you have a reflection of natural life.”
Notes From the Underground
Joe Graham’s Strapped had its world premiere this past weekend at Philadelphia QFest. The drama is slated to open this fall at NY’s Quad Theater. The Quad has also booked Owsley Brown III and Jerome Hiler’s Music Makes a City: A Louisville Orchestra Story to open September 17 and H.P. Mendoza’s Fruit Fly for September 24. . . . .If you hustle, you can catch producer Henry Rosenthal and actor Tom Blair in conversation onstage between Jon Jost’s Sure Fire and The Bed You Sleep In this evening at the American Cinematheque at the Aero in LA. . . .“Me and My iPhone,” an exhibition of photographs and a text installation by Lise Swenson, runs July 22-September 17 at 323 Gallery. The opening reception is Thursday, July 29. . . .Roberto Hernández and Geoffrey Smith’s Golden Gate Award-winning doc, Presumed Guilty, airs in a one-hour version July 27 at 10:30 p.m. on KQED. The film can be viewed online for a week beginning July 28 at www.pbs.org/pov.
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