Home Movies for the Queer Community

Jim Hubbard in Conversation With Kirsten Larvick

Still: Candlelight Vigil, New York, New York, 1988. Original format 16mm, color, silent.
Still: Candlelight Vigil, New York, New York, 1988. Original format 16mm, color, silent.

Introduction by Kirsten Larvick

Historically, social movements have primarily been documented by, and distributed through, the lens of mainstream media. While these outlets have provided vital information about the world, conventional sources have often offered particularly narrow perspectives on unfolding events. By the 1970s, however, activists and artists were using consumer film and video equipment to record an “in the trenches” view of their surroundings.

From 1979 to 2009, filmmaker Jim Hubbard captured the experiences of New York-based Lesbian, Gay, and Trans activists, and the fight for their lives. This collection of mainly hand-processed 8mm, Super 8 and 16mm unedited, silent footage and consumer-grade videotape represents gay pride marches, candlelight vigils, Kiss-Ins, protests, and other acts of resistance. These chronicles bare the intimacy and immediacy of a community simultaneously upended and organized. During a time that sparked great change, but not without great loss, these records reveal unique modes of effective dissent while putting faces to a movement.

Today, many of us seek understanding of the present through historical evidence, and as archivists, historians, and documentarians, some look to reconsider and recontextualize through past individual accounts. In partnership with Pro8mm, the Al Larvick Fund awarded two conservation and access grants to Jim Hubbard, for what he refers to as “home movies for the queer community”. It was through this collaboration that Jim’s work became available to the public.

Watching these films, one becomes aware of their immersive nature, as both documentation of the individuals in action, and as artistic expressions that expand the chronicling of political human rights events. These distinctive aspects led to a conversation with Jim to explore the process and experiences behind these recordings, and to consider their present-day value and usages.

Kirsten Larvick: Many of your recordings were made in the 1980s and ’90s. The national and local attitudes towards gay identifying people put event participants and activists at real risk. News outlets suggested a pointed voice and face to AIDS.

Jim Hubbard: The situation in the 1980s and 1990s when queer people had no rights was utterly different from what it is today. Same-sex sex was still illegal in at least 20 states; anti-discrimination laws were almost non-existent. Discrimination and condemnation were rampant. The advent of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s magnified this. Right-wing clergy insisted that this was the judgment of God and that gay people deserved these horrible deaths. Lesbians, who were the least likely population to contract HIV, were included in this condemnation. The New York Times refused to use the word “gay” until 1989. The standard method of portraying AIDS in the mainstream media included barging into hospital rooms to film people on their death beds, silhouetting the person with AIDS in order to emphasize the stigma of homosexuality and contracting this “disgusting” disease, and the creation of the category of “innocent victim” for babies born with HIV and those who contracted it through transfusion.

Stop the Movie (Cruising), New York, New York, 1979. Original format Super-8mm, black & white and color, silent.
Stop the Movie (Cruising), New York, New York, 1979. Original format Super-8mm, black & white and color, silent.

Kirsten Larvick: What was it like being part of a community that you were also filming?

Jim Hubbard: When I first began filming lesbian and gay events, I was viewed with suspicion and bemusement. At smaller events, I was often the only person with a camera. A few people thought I was from the FBI, but most people, if they thought about it at all, wondered why I bothered. When I showed these films, they were often met with derision. I think that was primarily because of my hand-processing techniques. People probably would have shrugged off the films if they looked “normal,” but the practices I employed, which attempted to use color in a non-naturalistic, expressionistic mode, just caused audiences to reject them outright. Even audiences accustomed to experimental film found the juxtaposition of political action, drag queens and abstract expressionistic color too much to process.

Still: Stop the Movie (Cruising), New York, New York, 1979. Original format Super-8mm, black & white and color, silent.
Still: Stop the Movie (Cruising), New York, New York, 1979. Original format Super-8mm, black & white and color, silent.

Kirsten Larvick: Your artistic choices within this environment make the footage altogether singular. Can you expand more on your practice and artistic modes you embraced?

Jim Hubbard: I was first and foremost a filmmaker. From the moment I discovered self-processing, I was intensely interested in the chemical nature of film and the ritualistic and meditative aspects of self-processing. I loved processing film — it was an utter joy. The film processor I used was designed to process black and white film quickly. I rigged it so that I could process color, but it required constant attention and keeping the temperature steady was a nightmare. But also, I loved and was thrilled by those accidents which caused the film to transmogrify itself into all sorts of wondrous colors and configurations. The changes of color not only enhanced the emotional impact but brought new meaning to the image. For instance, when I filmed the AIDS Memorial Quilt, there were just very sad people walking around looking at the panels, but the processed film became images of the quilt with electric blue figures slowly pacing through the frame, almost floating on top of the Quilt. They became the ghosts of the dead PWAs (People With AIDS) haunting the Quilt.

Excerpt: Elegy in the Streets (1989), Original format 16mm, color, silent.

I’ve always tried to capture events as a participant rather than as a dispassionate observer. I felt that I was filming my own community and frequently said that I was just recording my life. When I filmed marches, I would often place myself in the middle of the march and filmed the marchers as they walked toward me and had to go around me. When I filmed from the sidelines, I tried to position myself as close to the marchers as possible. I always tried to find the individual in the crowd rather than documenting the march as a mass. For pride marches, this became progressively more difficult as the separation between marchers and audience was increasingly enforced by police barricades. In the beginning, there was no separation between marcher and audience. A marcher might see a friend along the sidelines and stop to talk and flirt. Conversely, a viewer might see a friend marching and join the group and stroll to the Village. By the early 2000s, the boundary between marcher and viewer was nearly absolute.

Still: May 21st, May 22nd, 1979, New York, New York. Original format Super-8mm, black & white, silent.

Kirsten Larvick: You mentioned shifts in how law enforcement responded to organized events. What did you bear witness to?

Jim Hubbard: The presence and attitude of the police has evolved over the 40 years I have been filming political events. They are constantly reacting to the larger political climate and the mistakes of the last televised protest. In the early pride marches, the police were not a great presence. They mostly tried to keep viewers on the sidewalks, so the marchers had a clear path down the street, and they periodically stopped the March in order to let crosstown traffic pass. The exception was the massive police presence protecting St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Long before ACT UP’s Stop the Church Action (December 10, 1989), there was tension between the Gay Community and the openly-hostile homophobic Catholic Church. As the years went by, the policing became increasingly heavy-handed. Also, the policing changed with the political climate. This is easier to see in ACT UP demonstrations. ACT UP arose during the Koch Administration and, while there was no love lost between ACT UP and the cops, relations were generally respectful and followed a recognizable pattern with the demonstrators maintaining a lawful picket while also engaging in civil disobedience so that the distinction was understood by both sides. The cops generally warned those performing civil disobedience that they were in danger of being arrested and giving those who decided not to get arrested time to leave. During the Dinkins Administration, relations were both more relaxed and more strained as the cops felt resentful that they weren’t appreciated by the administration. The moment that Giuliani was sworn in, the cops adopted a tougher stance and became much more belligerent. During the Bloomberg Administration, they adopted the technique of corralling the demonstrators in order to control their movements until it was almost impossible to move at all. This evolved into the vicious kettling techniques used repeatedly against the Black Lives Matter demonstrators.

Kirsten Larvick: Some forms of dissent were distinctive to the LGBTQ community. This is evident in such events as Kiss-Ins.

Jim Hubbard: The Kiss-In was a perfect confluence of AIDS activism and queer life. ACT UP demonstrations always included a great deal of political theater to embody and elucidate the complexities of the AIDS crisis and its effects on PWAs and their loved ones. There was widespread fear in the general population around the transmission of HIV. Concerns around public toilets, mosquitoes, drinking out of the same glass, and kissing were rampant. None of these things could transmit HIV. So, to show solidarity with people with AIDS, lesbian and gay people developed the life-affirming and fear-denying habit of kissing even the slightest acquaintance upon meeting them. A Kiss-In was a natural development from the private affirmation to the very public insistence on the humanity of us all.

Kirsten Larvick: Stop the Movie (Cruising) is a compelling recording. Currently, there is a lot of conversation about representation in popular culture. In 1979-1980, that wasn’t the case.

Jim Hubbard: The film Cruising was to be shot on location in Greenwich Village and other places around New York City. So, there were local Gay people working on the film. The original screenplay which was horribly homophobic was leaked to Arthur Bell, the Village Voice columnist who wrote about it in his weekly column. This caused outrage in the community and when the filming began, the protests immediately followed. The defamation felt doubled — not only was the presentation stereotypical and stigmatizing, but these outsiders intended to film in the Village, on our turf, where we felt a certain amount of safety and ownership. Because of the protests, the script changed radically. I have not seen the movie in a long time, so I can’t really comment on it directly. The basic premise of nearly all Hollywood movies is that they emerge from the unacknowledged point of view of the supposed ordinary American — Midwestern, white, straight, Protestant, conservative, male. And so, any character who deviates from that is presented as the Other. I think this has changed to a certain extent. Certainly, it is the essential purpose of all independent filmmaking to make films from a different point of view, though too often they are cheap imitations of Hollywood movies with gay characters shoehorned into heterosexual formulas or actors of color playing roles written for white people. Hollywood has tried — and largely failed — to create movies and television about different kinds of people, but they are never made from the inside. At best, they are “sensitive” portrayals of the “other”.

Kirsten Larvick: How was your footage utilized and exhibited at the time?

Jim Hubbard: By and large, I did not exhibit this material as it was recorded. Ultimately, I did use shots from this footage in my edited films. The completed films were shown at lesbian and gay film festivals, universities and avant-garde film showcases.

It took me many years to figure out how to talk about my films so that people didn’t lose patience with them and were comfortable looking at strange silent images for long periods of time. But there has been a sea-change in most people’s attitude toward unedited camera footage. The raw urgent videos captured on cell phones that are instantly uploaded to the Internet, starting perhaps with the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, have made people much more accustomed to extended, unedited footage.

Still: Stop the Movie (Cruising), New York, New York, 1979. Original format Super-8mm, black & white and color, silent.

Kirsten Larvick: Your footage has been uploaded onto Internet Archive by the Al Larvick Fund. What is gained or lost by experiencing your films through contemporary platforms, and what do you think about their additional usages?

Jim Hubbard: I don’t think that sitting at home in front of a computer alone, or even with a few people is the same as watching a film in a theater. I’m no longer convinced of Marshall McLuhan’s notion that film is a hot medium and television is a cold medium, but they are different. For my own work, I accept that the digital conversion will never fully reproduce the color and feel of the filmic original. For many years, I was frustrated because I could never get an acceptable transfer of my films to video. The color capacity of analog (and even digital) video simply could not capture the color of the film. Also, I could never afford a high-end transfer which might have at least approximated the color. Because of digital’s much greater color range, the capture is now much closer to the film, especially after color correction. So, I have relaxed about the public presentation of my films either in digital projection or on a computer screen.

Some of the footage digitized by the Al Larvick Fund has been used in other people’s films. I made the decision to allow the use of the unedited footage and I am reasonably comfortable with that. Some of my footage was used in an experimental film by a young filmmaker of my acquaintance. The footage has also been used in a number of documentaries and I have been pleasantly surprised how well it goes with conventional footage. In fact, I think the contrast subliminally adds a certain psychological and political depth to the whole that I’m not certain the filmmakers realize or appreciate.

Kirsten Larvick: Are there misconceptions about this period of politics and activism in our collective memory that you wish could be corrected?

Jim Hubbard: The greatest misconception perpetrated and perpetuated by the mainstream media is that straight people were the heroes of the AIDS crisis. Rent and Angels in America being the prime examples. Rejection by their biological families was the norm for people with AIDS in the 80s and 90s. Lesbian and Gay men and people of color, both straight and gay, fought ferociously and uncompromisingly to force the U.S government, the pharmaceutical industry and the mainstream media to deal with the AIDS epidemic. The NIH, the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry did not develop the drugs that control HIV out of magnanimity, a sense of duty or even out of the profit motive, they did so because of the relentless pressure of AIDS activists.

Still: Candlelight Vigil, New York, New York, 1988. Original format 16mm, color, silent.
Still: Candlelight Vigil, New York, New York, 1988. Original format 16mm, color, silent.

Kirsten Larvick: Your vantage point in these recordings allows viewers to be embedded in the event to a certain extent. Do you hope audiences come away with a certain understanding or expanded view on where we’ve been and/or perhaps where we are?

Jim Hubbard: I do want people to come away from my work with a greater understanding and expanded view of the world and how queer people fit in it, but I never wanted to be prescriptive or manipulative. I only hope that people see something in my films that changes their world-view, that changes the way they see other people and leaves them somehow more open to other people’s experiences.

Jim Hubbard has been a prolific filmmaker since 1974, when he created United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, a feature length documentary on ACT UP, the AIDS activist group, which won Best Documentary at MIX Milano and Reel Q Pittsburgh LGBT Film Festival. Subsequently, Hubbard, along with Sarah Schulman, completed 187 interviews as part of the ACT UP Oral History Project. A bulk of these interviews were included in the exhibition, “ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987–1993”. Along with James Wentzy, Hubbard created a 9-part cable access television series based on the ACT UP Oral History Project. Hubbard’s 25 other films include Elegy in the Streets (1989), Two Marches (1991), The Dance (1992) and Memento Mori (1995), which won the Ursula for Best Short Film at the Hamburg Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in 1995.

Hubbard’s films are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and have been shown at: the Warhol Museum, ICA Boston, the Harvard Film Archive, Tokyo University, der Zürcher Museen, mumok (Vienna), Mudam (Luxembourg), the Berlin Film Festival, the London Film Festival, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and numerous other lesbian and gay film festivals. Additionally, Hubbard co-founded MIX — the New York Queer Experimental Film Festival, and has curated various prominent film series on AIDS activism, and under the auspices of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, he created the AIDS Activist Video Collection at the New York Public Library.

Hubbard also co-curated the series, “Another Wave: Recent Global Queer Cinema” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, July and September 2006. In 2018 and 2019, Hubbard received grants from the Al Larvick Conservation Fund to digitize footage from Lesbian & Gay Pride March and other queer demonstration footage and queer home movies, spanning more than 40 years.

Kirsten Larvick is a documentary maker and archivist. She is the founder and executive director of the Al Larvick Fund, a nonprofit with the mission of preserving historical and cultural heritage through conservation, education, and public accessibility of American analog home movie, amateur cinema and community recording collections. Additionally, Kirsten co-chairs the Women’s Film Preservation Fund and serves on its Grant Selection Committee.

Imagery and motion picture copyright Jim Hubbard.

Jim Hubbard’s Lesbian/Gay Community Film Footage collection is made available through the Al Larvick Fund’s grant program. To view the digital iterations of these films, visit: https://archive.org/details/@allarvickfund

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