Jake Tolan- project proposal

I’m interested in writing about contrasting views of the AIDS epidemic through documentaries.  The problem I’m encountering is that that is actually a huge body of work, and so focusing my thesis has been difficult.  What initially drew me to this was watching United in Anger and How to Survive a Plague within a few weeks of each other, after they had both recently been released or were traveling around film festivals, and seeing how differently they portrayed the AIDS epidemic and the involvement of ACT UP during the AIDS crisis.  I often think about the concept of a documentary as bringing light to issues that people may not have known about, or in the case of this plague, to issues that people never survived to talk about.  Really, though, the hand of the director is constantly at work in creating these films and what could otherwise seem merely factual, becomes apparently filtered when set up in contrast to another similar film.

Those movies deal with, ostensibly, the entire nation, but it’s fairly safe to say that their foci lie squarely within New York.  When talking about differences of perspectives on the issue, then, the obvious question becomes, ‘well, what about other cities?  How did they deal with AIDS and how have people documented it?’  The Other City is another really great AIDS documentary that deals specifically with Washington DC, and We Were Here deals primarily with San Francisco.

The other glaringly obvious thing to question is an issue of generation and timeframe.  The two documentaries I first stated deal squarely with the epidemic itself, meaning early 80’s to early 90’s.  However, to a certain extent, they overlook the history of the discovery of AIDS and the way that it basically destroyed the sex culture of gay men and radically reshaped the generally culture of queer people.  Including a film like Gay Sex in the 70’s could prove useful for more fully illustrating the epidemic as a whole.

So, as of right now, my project seems to be to try to address the way AIDS has been dealt with by documentarians, in a somewhat holistic manner.  At the core of my project, though, will be the question of who is actually telling the story of this time period.  In order to better paint that, I think I’ll be contrasting it to films like Chocolate Babies, which is no ways claims to be a documentary, as well as scholarly sources on the history of AIDS in America.

So questions would be things like:

-How have these recent documentaries portrayed the AIDS crisis?

-What parts of the story are they leaving out?

-How do these portrayals differ from scholarly works on the subject and/or works created during the crisis?

The video portion will probably be best used to compare and contrast clips from different films, by both looking at footage of the same events in multiple films as well as looking at footage that was passed over in certain films, but that may still be very relevant to describing the AIDS crisis.

The map can be used to trace protest sites and the geography of various landmark events during the time period.

However, this does seem like it’s a bit of a broad topic to me at the moment and I’d like to figure out a cohesive way to narrow it down.  In that respect I am super looking forward to what anybody has to say about this and any advice or leads on things I may want to look into that will help me narrow it would be much appreciated.


2 thoughts on “Jake Tolan- project proposal

  1. tiffanygomez1

    Hi Jake!

    I’m really intrigued by your essay topic and it sounds like your off to a good start. I think I tend to think of a documentary as a genre that portrays societal ideologies in a much more “stripped” and natural manner but, like you mentioned, there are still biases, perspectives and points of views at bay in documentaries. Your observation of the AIDS epidemic tending to unravel and be told from a perspective within New York is one that I also noticed when doing research for my topic and found to be interesting. San Francisco, Los Angeles and other big cities that I think have always been seen as the LGBTQ and AIDS “meccas” so to speak but I have also wondered about the untold story of other cities around the US that might’ve have harbored a large population of LGBTQ communities affected by AIDS. I’m really excited to see what information you find and arguments you make in relation to this particular area of study.

    From your blogpost, it seems you’re struggling to narrow down questions that would in some ways apply to all the documentaries you mentioned across the board which I think the questions you pose successfully do. Especially in reference to the documentary, Gay Sex in the 70s, that you mention, you might also want to ask the question of what do they add to the documentary genre or why that story or perspective is in need of being told. All in all, I’m excited to see how your project plays out!

  2. channabach

    Sounds like a great topic!

    There is a large amount of scholarship on this topic, so you’ve got a large body of work to mine for useful sources, which is helpful. I agree with you that you may want to narrow the focus to a few specific films, which will help you make strong claims that are grounded in filmic evidence and close readings. You may choose one film about New York, and one or two about other cities to contrast, examining how they represent the early years of the epidemic and AIDS activism differently. This will also let you talk about how the epidemic was lived and/or represented differently in different regions due to how media industries were organized.

    Some resources you may find useful: Deborah Gould’s Moving Politics: Emotion & ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS, Kylo-Patrick Hart’s The AIDS Movie*, Jacqueline Foertsch’s Enemies Within: The Cold War & AIDS Crisis in Literature, Film, & Culture*, Roger Hallas’s
    Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image, and Douglas Crimp’s Melancholia & Moralism**.

    * titles = books I own that you’re welcome to borrow
    ** = texts posted to the Readings page (scroll down to the bottom)

    Looking forward to seeing your project!

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