German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim's "Silence=Death" and "Positive" (at the Nuart through Saturday) compose the first two-thirds of a new trilogy which promises to be the most comprehensive documentary yet on the response to the AIDS crises. The first two parts are centered in New York, the last part in Berlin.
For more than 20 years, Praunheim, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger and whose real name is Holger Mischwitzki, has chronicled the gay experience in America and Germany with a candor and openness that has often invited controversy. This also means that he has been in the vanguard of the gay liberation movement, and four years ago, his "A Virus Respects No Morals," a savage, imaginative, scattershot Brecht-like allegory set largely in a gay bath, became one of the earliest and most provocative attacks on the hypocrisy, ignorance, politics and economics surrounding the AIDS crisis.
In short, Praunheim is just the man for the job he has taken on with "Silence=Death" and "Positive": he has the breadth of vision, the compassion and the militance and, yes, the sense of humor necessary to tackle the AIDS epidemic in all its aspects.
What emerges is a portrait of a much-beleaguered minority learning how to organize in the face of a society and a government that has regarded AIDS with much indifference and downright hostility. (The key villains of the two films are inevitably former President Ronald Reagan and former New York Mayor Edward Koch.)
Praunheim makes a very strong case for all gays still closeted to come out and join the struggle to press for a cure for the disease and for more education in regard to its prevention, especially at a time when gay bashing is on the rise and when the far right and various religious groups seem determined to view AIDS as a fit punishment for homosexuals.
"Silence=Death" focuses on AIDS and the arts, while "Positive" deals with AIDS and politics; Praunheim being Praunheim, you can be sure some X-rated, though safe, sex is involved in both films. The participants in the first film range from poets to filmmakers to fashion designers to painters. The most vivid presence in the first film is poet-filmmaker David Wojnarowicz, who has tested HIV positive and requests that his corpse be dumped on the White House steps. On a calmer note, Allen Ginsberg and late Keith Haring contribute to the plea for safe sex.
Both films are suffused with the rage of their participants, and in "Positive" Wojnarowicz's counterpart is pioneering AIDS activist Larry Kramer, who has also tested HIV positive; both describe themselves as unapologetically "hysterical" in their anger. Just as "Silence=Death" shows a wide range of talented men contributing their respective arts to the cause, "Positive" argues for the need for gays to hit the streets and protest the government's slow response to the AIDS crisis.
The films show gay men not merely changing their sexual practices and gathering information about the disease but also discovering a common unity and identity. If there is a consolation in the face of such devastating losses, it is that AIDS has led to gays demanding greater participation in society rather than to retreating from it. One of the last men interviewed in "Positive" says he regards AIDS as "our Pearl Harbor" and that "we will win the war."
A First Run Features release. Director Rosa von Praunheim, in collaboration with Phil Zwickler. Assistant director Steven Weiss. Camera Mike Kuchar, Evan Estern. Film editors Mike Shepard, Von Praunheim. Featuring David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Kunz, Paul Smith, Emilio Cubiero, Rafael Gamba,, Don Moffet,, Bern Boyle, and others.
Running time: 1 hour.
A First Run Features release. Director Rosa von Praunheim in collaboration with Phil Zwickler, Robert Hilfrety, and Steven Weiss. Camera Mike Kuchar, Evan Estern. Film editors Mike Shepard, Von Praunheim. Featuring Larry Kramer, Phil Zwickler, Michael Callen, Peter Staley, Gary Eller, Diamanda Gallas, Jay Corcoran, John Finch, Sarah Schulman, Larry Mass and others.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.