On the 30thanniversary of AIDS, June 5, Marc Smolowitz and a few friends organized a commemoration on San Francisco’s Castro Street. They called out names of people who’d died before adding their signatures to a window front. The event, in one of the areas hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic, didn’t exactly match a Pride Parade or a weekend at Gay Disney World.
People stopped by, curious, including a 20-something woman who asked a volunteer if she’d lost anyone to AIDS. When the volunteer told her that, yes, at one point she was losing about 20 friends a month, the girl was shocked. It was incomprehensible to a young San Francisco resident that, not too long ago, her City by the Bay was steeped in death.
“Where were you in 1981?” could almost be the tagline for “Still Around,” the new documentary produced by Smolowitz and Jorg Fockele, and just released by Outcast Films. The 82-minute film is composed of 15 shorts that match directors with people living with and around HIV and AIDS. While “feel good” is the last phrase I would use to describe the work, “Still Around” is, ultimately, a story of survival and hope, and happiness. The subjects, who range from drag queens to an elderly, wheelchair-confined gay man to a white woman as heterosexual and “normal” as her Napa Valley family, are as diverse as the disease itself.
Smolowitz, who directed the final piece, worked on the project for almost two years, and, needless to say, it’s a labor of love. “We sat around and realized people would be hungry for something like this,” he says. “These are all people who are living and thriving; the takeaway is that these people are doing well, fighting stigma, going public, showing that you can live with this disease.”
To finance the film, Smolowitz and Fockele set up a non-profit organization, The HIV Story Project, used Kickstarter.com, and did a lot of grass-roots fundraising. Says Smolowitz: “The beauty of short-film production is you can get results from not very much money.” The work has paid off, and “Still Around” will be screened next on June 24 in San Francisco. Film festivals and events will follow, and the movie can be rented through the company’s website.
“People want to have this discussion now,” says Smolowitz. “Thirty-six million people around the world are impacted by this, and not a lot of LGBT filmmakers want to make stories about this.” Smolowitz thinks the lack of AIDS-related filmmaking is, in part, because of fatigue. “Anytime something really challenging is in front of you for years, you become tired of it,” he says. “There’s less of a focus on what makes us marginal.”
He also doesn’t play a blame game. “Communities are tired,” says Smolowitz. “You have to honor that. People don’t want to think about death, they want to think about life.”
AIDS is not history we can afford to ignore, however, and Smolowitz wants to educate. AIDS and HIV have “huge implications on healthcare and our lives,” he says. “Anniversaries mark events and allow people to reflect.”
Besides, as the filmmaker points out, a vast majority of gay people weren’t alive yet in 1981. As for the ones who were, lucky for us, many of them are still around.