United in Anger: Jim Hubbard on his ACT UP doc

Cinema Politica screens queer history doc United in Anger, about radical protest group ACT UP, this Thursday. Director Jim Hubbard talks to us about the film and the era it depicts.

Photo courtesy of United in Anger

Watching United in Anger, Jim Hubbard’s feature-length documentary on the history of activist group the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), is a strange experience. Strange, because much of the footage of protests he uses comes from the 80s and 90s, yet it looks like it could have been taken from the Occupy protests of the past 18 months.

Hubbard acknowledges he was struck by the similarities as he edited the film. “I was editing the footage as the Occupy Wall Street protests were taking place, which were happening a couple of blocks away from my office,” he says.

But aside from the similarities to the protest tactics of ACT UP then and Occupy now, United in Anger serves as a passionate reminder of the people lost to AIDS and a time when those living with HIV had little or no hope in terms of medical treatments. Hubbard has been recording oral histories of those who were involved with ACT UP and has edited those interviews, along with various notorious protests by the group, into a taut, emotionally gripping documentary.

It’s hard to relate the feelings of despair and anger many felt at the time, but Hubbard gets there, and shows us some of ACT UP’s most notorious stunts. There were “die-ins” on Wall Street, during which hundreds of protestors would block traffic, effectively pointing fingers at the pharmaceutical companies for their paltry response to the epidemic. There were kiss-ins, where the sight of numerous same-sex couples locking lips forced the mainstream press to run such images — photos that would otherwise almost certainly be censored. And they even managed to crash the live taping of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather as the first Iraq War began, shouting “Fight AIDS, not Arabs!” as a stunned Rather looked on.

Hubbard says he was surprised at how much Wall Street came up when ACT UP was planning its various protest activities. “It wasn’t something that was at the top of my mind at the time,” he recalls. “But as I was looking at all the footage, I realized how many times it was mentioned. At the time I thought, ‘Shouldn’t the government be solving these problems?’ But it was a crisis of capitalism.”

And Hubbard says he has definitely had a change of heart about some of the actions of ACT UP. One of the most headline-grabbing things the organization ever did was to crash Catholic churches, staging “die-ins” on the floor and disrupting services. Activists did so in response to Catholic leaders, who were urging followers away from condom use. “I was ambivalent about those actions at the time. I didn’t necessarily think it was a good idea. Growing up Jewish, I felt a bit uncomfortable. But looking back, I think a lot of attitudes changed due to those protests in the church. I think people tended to think of us as sissies and wimps, but after people thought, ‘Maybe they’re a lot tougher than we thought.’”

Whenever we see someone speaking at a political rally or in an interview, Hubbard flashes the year of their death on the bottom of the screen, indicating the massive number of lives lost to HIV and AIDS. “There was such a tremendous amount of pain and loss at that time. The AIDS crisis was like a 9/11 every two weeks.”

Hubbard’s film is essential viewing for anyone interested in grass-roots activism, and in pushing for far-reaching political and social change. “ACT UP showed that a small group of people really can change the world.” ■


Jim Hubbard will present United in Anger as part of Concordia’s HIV/AIDS Lecture Series co-presented by Cinema Politica, this Thursday, Nov. 22 in the Hall Building (1455 de Maisonneuve W.), 7 p.m.

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