AIDS Activist Finds Creative Outlet in ‘Church’ : Documentary: Robert Hilferty’s controversial ‘Stop the Church’ will air tonight on KCET. ‘AIDS is an inescapable subject and must be explored,’ he says.


Robert Hilferty learned some harsh realities about AIDS and homophobia in 1985 when his lover, film scholar Tom Hopkins, got sick and died.

“Everything bad that could happen to two gay men happened,” the 29-year-old filmmaker said. “Tom’s family disowned him. The insurance company refused to pay for drugs. I was evicted from our apartment because society refused to acknowledge the validity of our relationship.”

Hilferty’s rage festered until 1988, when he joined the radical activist group ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. “ACT UP gave me an outlet to direct my anger and my energies in a constructive, even a creative, way,” he said.


Hilferty’s most provocative creation, the 24-minute documentary “Stop the Church,” exploring the planning and execution of ACT UP’s 1989 protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, will be broadcast at 10:30 tonight by public-television station KCET Channel 28 in Los Angeles. The film was originally slated to be broadcast nationwide last month as part of the “P.O.V.” (Point of View) series but was yanked from the schedule by skittish Public Broadcasting Service executives.

Now the film, which won the best documentary award at this year’s Ann Arbor (Mich.) Film Festival, is being resurrected by a handful of individual PBS stations (though not, so far, by New York’s WNET). In Los Angeles, KCET will pair “Stop the Church” with a panel discussion exploring church-state relations, censorship, public-television funding and other issues that the film and the flap about it have raised.

Hilferty, a graduate of New York’s Jesuit-run Regis School in New York and Princeton University, is riding the controversy with the same uncompromising spirit that marks his film. Interviewed in his cramped East Village apartment, he rarely missed a chance to score points against homophobia and those he blames for the continuing spread of AIDS.

Hilferty acknowledged that “Stop the Church” takes a strong point of view but recoiled at the term “Catholic bashing,” which some have attached to his work. “It is a linguistic travesty to equate my political critique of Cardinal (John J.) O’Connor with the fists, knives and bats of gay bashers,” he said.

“If the tax-exempt church and its leaders want to play politics--working to keep safer-sex education out of public schools, opposing choice for women and equal rights for gay men and lesbians--then they must expect a political reaction,” he added. “My film documents that reaction.”

“It’s an extremely successful documentary,” said Lucinda Frank, assistant curator of film and video at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which screened “Stop the Church” last year. “It does what it set out to do--stimulate discussion and thought about ACT UP and the Catholic church.”

“It is a very rich work,” added Richard Pena, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “It is not just a simple piece of agitprop. It invites viewers behind the scenes to watch ACT UP members debating tactics and strategies.”

Said Hilferty: “I wanted to create a portrait of the organization, how it plans a demonstration, its methods, processes and personalities. I wanted to show the anatomy of an action.” Hilferty did such a good dissection that the Kennebunkport, Me., Police Department bought a copy to prepare for ACT UP’s invasion of President Bush’s summer retreat last weekend.

Hilferty, who learned his craft at New York University and as an assistant to Robert Altman during the filming of “Caine Mutiny” and “Tanner ’88,” has an eye--and ear--for the telling detail. For “Stop the Church,” said the Princeton music major, “I deliberately chose religious music composed by gay composers to make a statement about gay invisibility.”

Hilferty, who has tested negative for the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS, said that he feels a “survivor’s duty” to “influence the representation of AIDS, which from the start has been a crisis of misrepresentation.”

“I don’t expect that all my films will be about AIDS, or even about gay people,” he said. “But AIDS is an inescapable subject and must be explored.”

He has just completed the screenplay for his next project, “Comes to Shove,” which he calls a black comedy “about people, gay and straight, who are transformed by the AIDS crisis.”

Hilferty calls “Comes to Shove” “an action film"--a pun on ACT UP’s strategy of direct action--but doubts he’ll find backing from Hollywood. “They seem squeamish about making films that capture the rage of people who see the government and others acting negligently during the AIDS crisis,” he said.