Celebrating HIV/AIDS Activism and Bridging the LGBTQ+ Generation Gap With “Commitment to Life”
Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz talks about his new documentary on the story of AIDS Project Los Angeles, other LA-based HIV/AIDS relief organizations, and Hollywood’s involvement in lifesaving activism during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
By Lindsay Lee Wallace
July 10, 2023
A group of people marching at a rally holding a poster that says AIDS Porject Los Angeles. Courtsey of Jeffrey Schwarz.
The lights come up on an 18th-century French parlor. Dancers in opulent brocade and ruffled white silk pose and recline, then line up to bow before none other than Madonna as she enters to perform her era-defining anthem, “Vogue.”
You’d be forgiven for assuming this clip is from the 1990 VMAs—but in fact, it’s a recording of a surprise performance she gave the following night for a crowd of celebrities, politicians, and LGBTQ+ activists, to raise money in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The event was AIDS Project Los Angeles’ fifth annual Commitment to Life gala, and the clip is just one gem among the wealth of archival footage featured in Commitment to Life, a documentary from Emmy-winning director Jeffrey Schwarz. The film details the activities of HIV/AIDS relief organizations during the early days of the epidemic, with a focus on APLA Health (formerly the West Hollywood-based AIDS Project Los Angeles) and its work supporting the gay community while leveraging the gilded town’s starpower, and navigating its secrecy.
Commitment to Life features footage of speeches and performances from celebrities who threw their weight behind the gay community during the epidemic, like Tom Hanks, Whitney Houston, Robin Williams and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor. “There’s a lot of fun to be had in this movie, because as queer people, we use humor, we use fun, we use camp,” Schwarz tells the Outfest Blog.
A white man with short blond hair in a white shirt with “Hope” written on it waves his hands in the air. Courtesy of Jeffrey Schwarz.
These breaths of levity are interwoven with news clips from early in the epidemic, and frank, moving interviews with many of the surviving activists whose work Commitment to Life highlights. The film, which tells the story of both APLA and the wider LA community during the epidemic, was made against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So many of the anxieties that people were feeling in the early days of HIV/AIDS, people were feeling in the early days of COVID, too. And we were interviewing people who had lived through those early days,” says Schwarz. “It was a very interesting and fraught time to be making the documentary, but it seemed all the more relevant.”
The film’s participants include former APLA Director for Policy and Planning and Black AIDS Institute founder Phill Wilson; former APLA board member, Minority AIDS Project founder, and owner of the Black queer disco Catch One Jewel Thais-Williams; activist and President and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition Bamby Salcedo; former APLA board member and activist Reverend Steve Pieters, who passed away on July 8 and was known for his boundary-breaking interview with televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker; and many other organizers and key figures of the time and today. Together, they vividly recount the terror and sorrow of the epidemic, depicting a time of both great darkness and fierce, defiant joy and unity.
They also relate a fear that the most painful legacies of the epidemic—from AIDS patients languishing in isolation due to misinformation and stigma, to public portrayals of the epidemic as a “white gay man’s disease” despite its outsized impact on communities of color, to systemic health care and governmental neglect—are being forgotten.
“Things have changed so much that nobody remembers,” says former AIDS nurse Melinda Serrano during the film. “Folks that take PrEP take it to prevent a disease, but they don’t realize what it’s actually preventing. […] I still cry, cause I remember.”
A black and white photo of a group of people marching at a rally. Courtesy of Jeffrey Schwarz.
The evolution of prevention and treatment options like PEP, PrEP, and antiretroviral therapies has fundamentally altered the meaning of an HIV diagnosis, inarguably a cause for celebration. But there is no guarantee that young queer and trans people today have older community members who lived through the epidemic in their lives to share its stories and lessons. And there is no guarantee that they will learn about it in school in a country that prefers to forget, rather than make amends for, the violence it inflicts upon its most marginalized citizens.
Commitment to Life is not a guarantee that these lessons will be preserved and passed along, either. But it’s a crucial start. “It’s very difficult, emotional, and confrontational to actually see people suffering from AIDS,” says Schwarz. “But I want this film to leave people feeling hopeful. Particularly younger people who are dealing with a litany of issues today that seem insurmountable.”
Despite the time that’s passed, and concerns that memories have eroded along with it, the reality is that many of the circumstances depicted in Commitment to Life are starkly familiar. As we face escalating cultural and legislative attempts to erase queer and trans people from public life, and the far-reaching fallout of a gravely mismanaged, ongoing pandemic that disproportionately impacts marginalized people, the film’s message feels especially urgent.
“We’re in a really fraught time right now,” Schwarz says. “We thought we were making progress, we seem to be moving backwards […] with all the trans bans and Don’t Say Gay and all this insanity.”
Commitment to Life is a reminder of a time when LGBTQ+ community was synonymous with accessibility, inclusivity, and taking care of one another, especially those most in need. This is clear in APLA’s offerings during the height of the epidemic, which ranged from not only food deliveries and care access resources but also a buddy program, the sole purpose of which was to acknowledge the deeply human need for companionship.
A Black man with short black hair stares into the camera. Above him, writting on the wall reads “Chris Brown Lie 8.27.50 – 11.28.89 Mary, Phill, Michael”. Courtesy of Jeffrey Schwarz.
“Our biggest motivation for wanting to make the film is to try to bridge this generation gap that we do seem to have,” says Schwarz. “To reconnect the younger folks to that history. […] I hope the film shows that even in our darkest moments, when it really does feel like there’s no hope, things can change. […] People saw a problem, saw their friends suffering, and decided to do something about it.”
The film celebrates the LGBTQ+ organizations and people who worked to support one another during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, memorialize those lost, and serves as a reminder of the power of our community.
“It’s LA, it’s our story,” says Schwarz. “I’m so excited for our Outfest screening. This one really does feel like coming home.”
Commitment to Life will play at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Saturday, July 15 at 4:15 p.m. at the Directors Guild of America, Theater 1 and virtually starting July 23. You can get tickets now here.
Lindsay Lee Wallace (she/her) is a freelance journalist and multidisciplinary writer based in New York City whose work has appeared in outlets including Slate, Teen Vogue, TIME, SELF, Bitch Media, and Xtra.
Wallace is also an Outfest Inclusive Press Fellow for the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Learn more about the program here.
This blog was paid for through a sponsorship by APLA Health.
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