by Ronald Gregg
Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 64-71
Last year PBS announced the new season of its P.O.V. series, which included Peter Adair's ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE and Marion Riggs' TONGUES UNTIED, two documentaries by gay men who had tested HIV+. I spent that summer in a Midwestern city where ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE was shown, but TONGUES UNTIED was canceled. I phoned the local PBS station for an explanation, and a station representative told me that the station management had previewed the program and decided to replace it because they were upset by the obscenity, i.e. "The film used the 'F' word about every minute." The representative continued, "I am not a prude, but even I found the show obscene," and she ended the conversation by noting that the station aired ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE, so they couldn't be accused of prejudice against homosexuals.
Shortly after the night that TONGUES UNTIED should have aired in that town, I received a bootleg videotaped copy recorded by an anonymous person at the station. I watched the video with friends and quickly realized that it wasn't "fuck" that had disturbed the representative, but the tape's political ideas and aggressive, graphic, gay sexual imagery. Clearly, the management feared that the form and content would disturb their "market," the white upper-middle class patrons who financially "support" the station.
Last summer approximately two thirds of the country's PBS stations cancelled TONGUES UNTIED (Milloy 3). This no doubt had a chilling effect and spells trouble for the P.O.V. producers' goal to air all "points-of-view." As with previous PBS programming controversies, the problem lies with subject matter and style: subordinate minorities may speak, but only with a weak, passive voice, safely subordinated to that of the sympathetic, white upper-middle class. To illustrate how this works, I only need to compare Adair's and Riggs' separate summer offerings.
Adair's ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE is a tape that I admire but I also recognize that in ways, it plays into the mainstream representation of gays and HIV+ groups. In particular, it keeps them distant, controlled, and sympathetic through the interview/talking heads format A viewer can easily judge these nice HIV+ persons, seeing them as receiving their sad retribution for a past "unhealthy" lifestyle. On the other hand, Riggs uses a variety of stylistic means to explore his own black gay background and lifestyle with no justification, no apology. The work is confrontational and aesthetically provocative, never neutral, as it exposes the prejudice and condescension of the white majority, including white gay men. (See Chuck Kleinhans' in-depth analysis of TONGUES UNTIED and his interview with Riggs in Jump Cut 36.) Adair allows comfortable distance; Riggs gets under the skin. Adair can be safely televised; Riggs cannot.
That PBS censored TONGUES UNTIED is not surprising. That act is consistent with PBS' history of its relationship to independent documentarists in the United States. PBS' original freedom and independence, its mandate to offer a diverse set of political and social viewpoints, has been attacked and undermined almost from the beginning of its creation in 1967. First during the Nixon administration, then intensifying during the Reagan years, political and commercial pressure groups have systematically attempted to erode or destroy PBS' original mission.
I offer here a brief historical review of the politicization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which provides some funding for PBS, and a description of the steady encroachment of solicited commercial and public funding for PBS during the Reagan presidency. I then wish to discuss PBS' blatant censorship of documentary programming, focusing on the 1982 MIDDLETOWN series and the SEVENTEEN episode. Following that, I shall analyze the style and content of the documentary AIDS: CHAPTER ONE (Thea Chalow, 1985), appearing on PBS' NOVA series. This series significantly illustrates a more insidious result of political and funding pressures on PBS documentaries.
AIDS: CHAPTER ONE misleads while it appears to inform. The series as a whole reflects PBS' desire for a safe, reassuring documentation of reality in the Reagan 80's, one which would promote the view of the dominant cultural and medical establishment as unified, powerful, all knowing and well meaning. Looked at closely, the program's simplifications amount to distortions; its clichéd, conventional, narrative form misrepresents both the medical community's role and attitude vis-à-vis the AIDS crisis and the humanity of gay PWAs (People with AIDS).
PBS' HISTORY: POLITICAL CONTROL OVER PBS
PBS' independence and freedom from governmental controls (supposedly guaranteed by federal policy written in 1967) was very short lived. Congress left too many loopholes. Within two years, the Nixon administration, unhappy with PBS programming, set out to control this new broadcast system. Political programs which allowed Nixon's adversaries a platform and programs reflecting the social turmoil of the Vietnam War regularly raised the ire of the Nixon administration. To suppress such political discourse on PBS, Nixon and his staff attacked the CPB, which provided financial support for PBS. Papers released under the Freedom of Information Act in 1979 reveal that Nixon had ordered "all funds for public broadcasting be cut immediately" (qtd. in Wicklein 28). But upon the advice of his Office of Telecommunications Policy, Nixon instead appointed men sympathetic to his viewpoint to the CPB board. An internal White House memo confirms this premeditated action: "We need eight loyalists to control the present CPB board and fire the current staff who make the grants" (qtd. in Wicklein 28).
The offending programs soon disappeared from the television screen. The CPB began collaborating with the Nixon White House, meeting with the administration and providing lists detailing future programming and program guests. Predictably, Nixon continued to use his veto power, forcing Congress to pass budgets with less funding devoted to public affairs programming (Harrison 34, 37).
The Ford and Carter administrations allowed PBS to regain some of its former journalistic freedom and independence. Later, as S. L. Harrison, a former director of corporate communications for CPB, points out, in terms of public broadcasting policy, the Reagan administration brought back "the same spirit and some of the same personalities of the Nixon administration [Pat Buchanan, for one]... "(37). Amid the budget reallocations of the early 80s, the first budget plan submitted to Congress by Reagan's Office of Management and Budget offered public broadcasting no government funding. The Reagan administration proposed that public broadcasting should survive through advertising, foundation and corporate sponsorship, and viewers' contributions (Harrison 37).
As a compromise with the Reagan administration, Congress reduced funding for the 1983 CPB budget from the previous allocation of $172 million to $137 million. CPB's budget remained at this operating level until the 1987 budget allocations which increased CPB' s appropriation to $200 million (United States 257). Beginning in 1982, as the future loss in government funding became obvious, PBS courted corporate and public support to make up the difference. Additionally, programs difficult to finance, such as news and public affairs programs, were cut.
SEVENTEEN AND THE "NEW' CONTROLS ON PBS PROGRAMMING
The SEVENTEEN case study illustrates the pressures that these new sources of funding began to exert on PBS programming. In 1982, PBS aired a six-part series called MIDDLETOWN. Five of the six episodes offered a mostly positive portrayal of various aspects of contemporary Muncie, Indiana. However, one of the installments, SEVENTEEN, a film that explored black and white working-class high school students, showed Muncie high schoolers smoking pot, resisting school authorities, drinking at parties, and most significantly, scenes of interracial kissing. The producer, Peter Davis, eventually pulled this installment from the series after pressure from Xerox, the corporate sponsor for the MIDDLETOWN series, various citizens of Muncie and PBS executives.
After a preview of SEVENTEEN, company officials at Xerox, concerned about the image that the film projected, found the program too offensive for the Xerox image. Although Xerox did not rescind its funding for the series, it dropped its promised national advertising campaign for MIDDLETOWN and publicly disassociated itself from the series (Lingemann 723). Following Xerox's reaction, again after previewing SEVENTEEN, the community of Muncie pressured PBS to cancel that installment, claiming that the documentary skewed the presentation of their high school. A group of parents and school officials threatened a lawsuit claiming that the documentary filmmakers had not received proper consent for the participation by minors in the filming. Citing matters of "taste," PBS, in turn, pressured Davis to edit five minutes out of the footage, a scene where two teenage boys discuss sex. After meeting with a citizen's group from Muncie, PBS officials requested additional cuts, whereupon in response Davis pulled the documentary from the series (Mayer 35).
Analyzing the controversy and SEVENTEEN's content, Patricia Zimmerman notes how the documentary's form and style contributed to rejection of the film. Instead of the film's concentrating on one student's reactions and experiences to high school "through a structure of development, crisis, and resolution," as Zimmermann points out, the documentary offers "over 37 different characters," and
Zimmermann adds that the documentary's style of hand-held camera, long takes, and wide-angle lens doesn't allow the viewer an objective, passive distance from the material (14-15). As a result, viewers' hostile reactions to SEVENTEEN's subject matter were heightened by its unconventional style, which challenged what the viewer expected from a documentary. The people of Muncie wanted to sound and look on film like an all-American, Norman Rockwellian community, but SEVENTEEN's structure and style challenged such an image and all its implications.
The SEVENTEEN controversy underscores not only the new economic controls on PBS' content, but, equally important, the developing formal restrictions on style in political and social documentaries for PBS. Independent film producer Lawrence Daressa summarizes the effect that corporate and public sources of financing had on PBS:
PBS' reliance on corporate sponsors resulted in a particular emphasis on non-controversial programming in culture, science and nature, and education. Other subject matter and other formats were either censored or rebuffed by corporations that exerted control over the programs. For instance, Bill Moyers was unable to air controversial opinions for A WALK THROUGH THE 20TH CENTURY funded by Chevron; indeed, after three "controversial" programs on his BILL MOYERS JOURNAL, corporate sponsorship was canceled.
S. L. Harrison claims that during the time he worked for CPB, from 1976 to 1985, public TV producers regularly showed programs to underwriters to make sure that the shows would not offend sponsors, an exercise in blatant and willing self-censorship. Corporate sponsors declare candidly that they should not throw money away on programs that fail to promote a "feel-good" image for the company (Harrison 38).
We should finally note that besides creating funding problems for public broadcasting, the Reagan administration appointed new members to CPB's board, which oversees CPB's distribution of limited resources. In 1984, Sonia Landau, who had headed Women for Reagan/Bush in the 1984 election, replaced the CPB board chairperson. Like many such appointments of conservatives hostile to contemporary art and artists to arts and humanities boards, this act underscored the politicization and nepotism of the board. This new Reagan-controlled CPR board asked why PBS focused on controversial issues and not on patriotic programming. Such programming would emphasize national achievement or the classics. Weighing in with unintentional irony, Landau thought there should be a series developed explaining the U.S. Constitution. In sum, the board, like other funding sources, worked systematically and effectively to control the ideological content of PBS' programming.
HOW A "POPULAR" PBS SERIES REPRESENTED THE AIDS CRISIS
NOVA, one of PBS' prestige series, continues to receive generous corporate sponsorship. It is promoted as a program that contains "explorations of exciting developments on the cutting edge of science, medicine, and technology." The series entered its 19th season in 1991, ranked third in popularity for all of PBS' continuous series (Renewal Record from PBS). It appears that NOVA has never faced the financial difficulties that more challenging or controversial programs have faced.
Given its image, longevity and continued corporate support, Nova's tackling of AIDS might have been considered daring, even surprising for the year 1985. However, to view Thea Chalow's AIDS: CHAPTER ONE shown on NOVA is to realize how far PBS had strayed from its mission to foster innovation and diversity in programming and how successfully the Reagan controls had become entrenched by that time.
A documentary can be a political statement or representation as much by what it omits or by its conventional, omniscient, objective pretensions as by any explicit political message contained in the footage. Superficially, AIDS: CHAPTER ONE purports to show how medical science responded to the AIDS crisis, covering the period from 1981, beginning with the discovery of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), to 1984, ending with the announcement of Robert Gab's discovery of HTLV-III (the U.S. version of the human retrovirus) by Margaret Heckler, Reagan's Health and Human Services Secretary. Even the title suggests a comprehensive, authoritative first installment, an "All About AIDS" to date.
The documentary actually promotes a false picture of cooperation, harmony and progress as selected doctors and researchers recount team-sleuthing efforts to track down the killer disease and save its helpless victims. The medical/ scientific community's voice in AIDS: CHAPTER ONE is one of power, facts, control, and yes, compassion verging on pity. The pariah victims, passive and feminized, have virtually no voice at all. Sick and alone, they wait for death or a miracle from their medical saviors.
The director relies upon a conventional narrative structure and style to show how the medical community discovered the virus that leads to AIDS. Unlike the challenging, unconventional style of SEVENTEEN or TONGUES UNTIED, this format limits any discussion of the real problems involved with early AIDS research and funding. In fact, the program depicts a powerful establishment institution favorably in the very way that supports the "national achievement" ideal for PBS programming, which was expressed by the Reagan-appointed CPB Wad.
Promoting the documentary's 1985 premiere, TV Guide notes that Dr. Robert Gallo works at the "forefront of U.S. AIDS research." The Guide's synopsis explains, "He [Gallo] and other scientists in the U.S. and France retrace the steps that led them to their first big breakthrough: the isolation of an AIDS-causing virus" (TV Guide A95). The documentary was clearly not conceived to challenge or question in any way how the CDC. Gallo, or other medical researchers handled the search for the virus. The program could never entertain the concept that doctors may be ignorant, harbor prejudice and often work in a self-servingly competitive way.
DOCUMENTARY MADE LIKE FICTION
Written, produced, and directed by Thea Chalow, AIDS: CHAPTER ONE lapses into a classical, fictional narrative structure through its use of individuals with consistent psychological characteristics, a goal-oriented narrative, causality determined by characters, and narrative linearity. (See David Bordwell's discussion of the classical Hollywood narrative, pgs. 157-164). Chalow's documentary is set up like a Hollywood detective story with three principal, stereotypical characters: the detective, the victim, and the killer.
The doctors and medical researchers from Chalow's documentary embody the detective role. These medical doctors/researchers are consistently shown as the ever-active characters. They talk on the telephone, observe patients, and work in the laboratories, looking for clues. Their active, knowledgeable roles are further emphasized by their being called by their professional titles, juxtaposed against the first name labeling of the patients.
In the beginning, as the mystery unfolds, the narrator explains that the doctors/detectives remain "bewildered" about the nature of this new medical killer. Although sympathetic and benevolent around the patient/victims, these medical detectives are described as "protected emotionally," able to continue even though surrounded by death. They piece the evidence together logically, stalking the AIDS killer. Strong and heroic, they never use plastic gloves to protect themselves when dealing with their patients. They are shown as they actively move from location to location, solely focused on their mission.
Meticulous in their records, these detectives piece together the traits of the virus that leads to AIDS, taking the "fingerprints" of the killer and discovering its identity. The main characters set the medical narrative goal in the film: a race against time to "track down" the cause of AIDS and save the disease's victims.
The targets of the documentary's elusive killer are the gay AIDS patients. The entire program feminizes people with AIDS, following the easy, predictable stereotyping of homosexuals in the dominant media. The "fear[ful]" gay "victims," as labeled by the documentary, helplessly and passively await the disease, much as the hapless women in standard detective films fear their pursuer and await deliverance or protection.
Kevin McConville, a featured AIDS patient, claims, "I have never hurt a fly." And in an earlier close up, the camera lingering to record his pain, Kevin, unlike the stoic doctors, holds back tears as he discusses his friend Bill's death from AIDS. "Victims" in AIDS: CHAPTER ONE are shown doing domestic tasks in the home, watering the plants or putting up the groceries after a trip to the supermarket, recalling the stereotypical housewifely lack of empowerment or authority.
At another representational level, these gay "victims" remain stigmatized by a sexually transmitted disease which gays have spread "outside the homosexual community," according to the narrator. In this aspect, they are depicted similar to Hollywood's femmes fatales who, even if the film offers an apology for their harmful behavior, must be punished for their loose, sexual conduct. In fact, at the end of the documentary, we are informed that Kevin died, with the reminder that he had contracted "AIDS through sexual contact with a person infected with the virus..." Deserted by family and friends for their sinful actions, these guilty "victims" are comforted by heroes in white who continue working out in the dangerous world-sleuthing to save gay victims' lives.
The third character in this detective narrative deals with the elusive killer, AIDS. In AIDS: CHAPTER ONE, this cruel, heartless predator causes its "victims" to "die a miserable death," while spreading "hysteria" among the general population. Dr. Jaffe, of the Center for Disease Control, characterizes the days before they had identified the retrovirus as "scary times," reinforcing the implication that the cause for alarm has abated or been tamed. Thus, AIDS, although not given a human face, becomes personified in the program as "an insidious new killer," causing death and panic among the population.
With these characters, Chalow follows a classical detective story model. First, the film has a standard, expository introduction, omnipotently relaying background information through a male narrator (similar to the narrative voice in crime dramas, such as DRAGNET's, "This is the city..."). The opening shot establishes San Francisco as the dark city where the killer surfaces. As the narrator relates the pre-AIDS political and social turmoil of a sexually liberated gay community, the montage sequence moves the viewer from the opening shot of the Golden Gate Bridge to an active Castro Street scene. The camera specifically focuses on a stereotypical image of two gay men with arms wrapped around each other while one rests his hand on his partner's ass. At this point, the narrator intones that in the Castro, "gay men celebrated their sexual liberation in private clubs and bathhouses," establishing the environment of the exotic, sexual "other."
The narration moves to discuss AIDS, and the editing cuts to our first "victim," Bobby Reynolds, seen walking alone down the street After giving background on Bobby, as he visits his health clinic or sits alone in his darkened kitchen, the narrator tells us that "this is the story of how modem science has begun to unravel its [AIDS] mystery." This opening prologue closes with a "Biological Hazard" warning sign and a nurse wearing mask, gown, and gloves entering the danger area, emphasizing the horror and contagion associated with the killer.
The documentary then shows how "medical detectives tracked down the who, what, and where of this deadly new epidemic. The hunt for why followed? This detective format dominates and shapes the script. After the introduction, the film shifts to the Center for Disease Control, introducing its "elite" corps of epidemiologists who put the first pieces of the puzzle together. After the first AIDS cases are reported, one of the "elite," Dr. James Curran, asks rhetorically, "What could be going on in gay men?" Here, the medical detectives begin to formulate questions about the gay victims' habits that will lead to possible clues. With each answered question, the narrator claims that the detectives have one more piece of the puzzle, one more clue. In the meantime, the doctors and patients remain "alert" for signs of AIDS, which can "attack" at any moment.
Eventually, as the narrator notes, "evidence began to accumulate" until "the secret code was broken." The film concludes with the narrator explaining that "the first heat has been run" against this "disease of the century? Although the doctors have won this "first heat," as with fictional villains such as Dr. Moriarty, AIDS is still at large, the race is "far from over." More AIDS chapters, we may infer, will follow to keep us abreast of the drama. From beginning to end, the documentary is trapped in this mystery/detective format and all information offered to us is selected and, as a result, shaped to conform to the narrative structure.
Aside from the narrative, AIDS: CHAPTER ONE is trapped by its illusion of historical, chronological linearity. Each scene is connected by the narrator who moves us forward by specific time periods or by the discovery of a new clue and the explanation of the importance of that clue and how it was uncovered. Each scene follows the previous one in a closed logical paradigm. The editing sets and tightens the narrative noose, which guarantees that the documentary is representing reality and truth.
In his study of film narration, David Bordwell points out that the dominant style found in the classical fictional film is characterized by centering, control of sound and lighting, and linear editing (162-163). Chalow's documentary has little camera movement, only an occasional pan to follow someone down a corridor or through a door. The scenes remain static: the figure is planted in center space in such actions as talking on a telephone or giving a blood sample.
The documentary also uses many "talking heads" centered in the frame where a figure sits behind or on a desk, looking directly into the camera with unchallenged authority. The sound track emphasizes only the narrator and talking heads, removing background noises and disturbances to keep the attention on the dominant voice. In the same vein, the spaces are well lit to remove shadows, thus eliminating visual nuances or distractions. The editing moves with a predetermined, linear sense. It remains non-obtrusive, designed like the sound and the lighting to focus our attention on the individuals and their legitimacy and control. Chalow's film clearly uses a classical Hollywood style as well as form.
Beyond the preconceived authority implied by a historical documentary on medical science, a documentary film of this type tries to convince us of its realism through stylistic authority and evidence. First, there is the presence of the authoritative narrator giving an account of our heroes' search. The narrator, a central force of disembodied objectivity, helps to create a cohesion to the film, connecting scenes through a guiding temporal discourse, and, in the manner of an infallible teacher, explaining the science behind AIDS. This stereotypical, professional male voice carries a presumed weight of truth, reinforced from its use in countless newsreels, documentaries and television reportage.
Second, images of science back up the medical authorities, graphically supporting their scientific validity and objectivity. In the laboratory, we are treated to test tubes, computers, and microscopes. Clinical pictures of AIDS patients with Kaposi Sarcoma (KS), microscopic views of blood cells, and X-rays demonstrate a medical realism that seems to record the scientific truth.
Third, the film uses animation to illustrate how AIDS works in the body. We see how the body's defenses break down with the onset of AIDS. With these diagrams, the narrative presents a condescending, simplified scientific explanation that evidences the superiority of science over our knowledge.
Fourth, the institutions that support these medical detectives provide imposing, material authority. The film makes a point to establish the identity of each prestigious institute before discussing the accomplishments carried out inside.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the "talking heads" or medical authorities speak from behind their desks with piles of books in the background. The composition uses centered figures who look directly in the camera to emphasize the truth and candor of their words. Dr. Montaigne displays his notebook during one of these sequences, illustrating the authoritative results of his experiments.
By these various stylistic methods of representation and empowerment by its narrative fictional form, AIDS: CHAPTER ONE aspires to create the illusion of a historically objective presentation of reality. Chuck Kleinhans, however, notes that these "tired clichés" of the dominant PBS form "cover over social cracks and contradictions" (321). The medical participants tell their story from their own viewpoints while the PWAs become mere pawns and guinea pigs for those authoritative voices. Chalow, appearing to remain aloof and objective and using a limited and limiting conventional style and format, fails to expose the very real problems in her portrayal of doctors and PWAs.
Looking back at the historical context during the time that AIDS: CHAPTER ONE was made, the documentary's problems and limitations are clearly inevitable. As Kleinhans explains, a simple "problem and solution" documentary of this type, "removes the problem from its larger political, economic, and social framework and presents it on its most empirically observable level" (325). So what historical realities, what "framework" does Chalow miss, losing the opportunity to educate herself and us?
In her representation of PWAS, all of Chalow's examples are white, gay men. This reinforces the belief that AIDS is a gay disease with gay men passing the "killer AIDS" through the rest of the population like a "plague." This is further emphasized by the animation illustrating the AIDS risk groups. Her diagram starts with gays; then in a vanishing point perspective, the animation adds drug abusers, Haitians, and finally hemophiliacs, after which the two lines enclosing these groups meet in the far distance. Hemophiliacs, the innocent victims, are therefore the last group in the "general public" to get AIDS indirectly from guilty, contaminated gay men.
However, the statistical breakdown of PWAs during the period covered by Chalow's documentary tells another story. Gerald M. Oppenheimer points out that the first heterosexual patients (one of whom was female) were reported in August of 1981, only a few months after the MMWR's first report on Pneumocystis Pneumonia (PCP) among five gay men. In June 1982, the MMWR noted that almost one third of the heterosexual patients with KS and/or PCP were women (Oppenheimer 279). In 1983, Larry Kramer noted, "Six percent of all AIDS cases are now occurring in what ...is called 'the general population,' i.e., people who are not gay, Haitian, hemophiliacs, or IV drug users" (69).
Chalow doesn't mention these patients. In his discussion on how a population responds to an epidemic, Guenter B. Risse explains,
This is what happened with AIDS. By failing to provide the real, statistical patient breakdown, Chalow fails to adequately discuss how patients were stigmatized during the period covered by her film.
In her narrative, the gay patients are alienated, isolated from lovers and family, and helplessly dependent upon the medical system and support groups. In this way, the film emphasizes gays living in quasi-quarantined situations. Bobby and Kevin finally have as their only companions their faithful dogs. In her discussion of the "iconography of disease," Sander Gilman notes that the isolated gay patient embodies
As noted, Chalow's restrictive narrative form imposes this feminized role upon the gay "sufferer," once more reinforcing a stereotype and a myth, not challenging them.
This isolation of the gay patient, except for the caretaking presence of the doctors and medical personnel, suggests a helplessness on the patient's part. It dehumanizes the PWA as a passive, non-participant in life, existing on the edge of death. These individuals, the documentary implies, no longer have an active life or an authentic voice. Chalow gives AIDS support groups a passing mention when introducing Kevin McConville, but the film's form emphasizes the isolation.
In reality, however, at the time of the documentary, the gay community had already started to show PWAs that AIDS did not need to lead to a passive acceptance of death. The medical and scientific communities by no means offered the sole sources for health support and hope. Larry Kramer wrote in 1983, "GMHC [Gay Men's Health Crisis] provides crisis counseling, group therapy, welfare guidance, recreational activities, and hospital and home care" (71). Kramer's article in the Village Voice points to active, effective and realistic participation by groups other than the medical community. In fact, after viewing AIDS: CHAPTER ONE, one can only ask in frustration or anger: Where are the patients whose friends did stay and help take care of them? Where are the PWAs who became a political force in addition to supporting "friends," calling for increased government funding for research and especially services? From Chalow's film, no one would envision or suspect the emerging, challenging, untidy existence of AIDS activists such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) that included PWAs. This coalition didn't suddenly spring up one magical spring afternoon to protest on Wall Street.
Only once does Chalow mention gay activists, noting that in the summer of 1983, "gay activists criticized the government's response to the health crises and urged additional funding for research." From Chalow's film, one would think that PWAs always trusted doctors, that they should trust doctors more than informed activist friends. The concept is certainly not new, that of treating patients in humane, practical and useful ways, beyond just treating the disease. Yet such a concept remains chillingly absent from this documentary. To have explored such concepts would, of course, have destroyed the work's symmetry and challenged the certainties shown.
On a related subject, Chalow's film does not discuss the political problems with funding that gay activists were protesting. In his first term of office, backed up by his "trickle down" approach to economics and the communist threat, Reagan was able to reduce taxes, increase the military budget, and cut domestic spending on social problems such as health. If AIDS, in fact, represents a "plague," why does Chalow not explore the slow response to funding for research and health related services for HIV infected persons?
AIDS: CHAPTER ONE fails to discuss the implications of the money that did get spent on research. The film's tag ending gives the following reassurance: "A blood screening test is currently available and will help to prevent the spread of AIDS through blood transfusion." But never does she make the connection between the discovery of HTLV-III (attributed to Gallo) and the commercial production of kits that would test the blood supply, thus keeping the panicked general public free from the "gay plague."
A host of related material questions arise: What companies benefited from the marketing of these kits? Did the availability of testing affect the handling of AIDS by insurance companies? Why does the documentary make no mention and certainly no critique of the strident calls for testing to identify "AIDS carriers" and quarantine them? Why, one finally wonders, does Chalow provide no discussion at all of how the government directed its meager funding for AIDS during this period?
In the film's controlled format and content, Chalow lets the medical and research community escape unscathed, unblemished by internecine quarreling or controversy. In this version of reality, the medical community is presented as an empirical, understanding caretaker. Medical personnel put their patients at ease, at one point, through humor, recalling the all-to-frequent infantilization of patients by jocular authority figures.
But where, one wonders, are the medical panics and the doctors and nurses who refused to treat AIDS patients? Instances of such Hippocratic betrayals even made the newspaper and network news. Randy Shilts writes that in 1982, reports noted how some nurses in New York "were simply refusing to work with AIDS patients, leaving food trays at their door and allowing them to lie for entire shifts in sheets stained with defecation" (197). And the film offers, of course, no real balanced discussion of the medical community's debate over quarantining. Only Dr. Paul Volberding is quoted on the subject of hospital quarantining procedures, and he pronounces his hospital's isolation of AIDS patients a complete success.
Chalow's film fails to explore the source of the media panic: the medical journals from which the popular press gets its medical understanding and perception of disease. Not surprisingly, this document makes no mention of the battle of egos and ambition that played in the race against AIDS, trivializing the medical objective and creating a media spectacle of a race between France and the United States. Robert Gallo's highly publicized but controversial discovery of HTLV-III, for years contested as the same virus discovered one year earlier by the French, finds no place in this documentary.
It is typical of AIDS: CHAPTER ONE's closed circuit approach that it provides no opposing scientific viewpoints to challenge the models that its scientists developed to explain how the virus works. Oppenheimer points out that "the epidemiologists' approach may have skewed the choice of models and the hypotheses pursued and may have offered some justification for homophobia" (291). This justification, however, should not exculpate a documentarian of the AIDS crisis. Chalow's narrative structure simply accepts the researchers' explanations and models. She offers this to the viewer as the truth.
AIDS: CHAPTER ONE presents a sanitized reality, avoiding controversy through its appearance of objectivity and distance from the issues. Thea Chalow has chosen to ground her film in reassuring classical narrative style and form, featuring problem and resolution. Her approach — unwittingly, one hopes — diminishes the humanity of persons infected with MW. It is surely a cruel irony that this film about AIDS really stands as a story about power and success.
It would obviously be unrealistic to expect a single documentary to explore all the questions raised here. Questions and dilemmas, however, could at least have been raised in spite of the film's restricting form and style. Whatever the pressures and motivations surrounding the making of AIDS: CHAPTER ONE, it fails to represent the medical or human realities of the infection.
Both the censorship of Marlon Riggs' recent TONGUES UNTIED and the airing of AIDS: CHAPTER ONE on NOVA illustrate the failure of PBS' mission and potential. When political, corporate, and other moneyed controls combine to promote a cautious, non-controversial representation of reality, truth in all its complexity is an inevitable victim. Riggs' powerful documentary, TONGUES UNTIED, an ironic title in light of this study, reminds us of what PBS was supposed to be all about.
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Oppenheimer, Gerald M. "In the Eye of the Storm: the Epidemiological Construction of AIDS." AIDS: The Burdens of History. Eds. Elizabeth Fee and Daniel M. Fox. Univ. of CA, 1988.
Renewal record from PBS on the 1991 season for NOVA.
Risse, Guenter B. "Epidemics and History: Ecological Perspectives and Social Responses." AIDS: The Burdens of History. Eds. Elizabeth Fee and Daniel M. Fox. University of California Press, 1988.
Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
United States. House. Subcommittee on the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. Hearings before a Subcommittee on Appropriations. 101st Cong., 1st sess. Washington: GPO, 1988.
TV Guide 12 Feb. 1985: A-95.
Wicklein, John. "The Assault on Public Television." Columbia Journalism Review Jan.-Feb. 1986: 27-34.
Zimmerman, Patricia R. "SEVENTEEN: Race, Class, Sex and Spectatorship." Afterimage May 1986: 13-15.