ACT UP: Creating a film using archival footage

Filmmaker Jim Hubbard watched over a thousand hours of archival footage chronicling the AIDS crisis to produce his documentary, “United in Anger: A History of ACT UP.”  The footage was part of the New York Public Library’s AIDS Activist Collections, gathered from about 40 filmmakers.

The documentary focuses on ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a coalition of grassroots organizations, and their fight for the resolution of the AIDS crisis.

In 2001, Hubbard and producer Sarah Schulman started the Act Up Oral History Project, which has now collected 128 interviews. But four years ago, Hubbard started to edit the footage, creating a three-hour rough cut of the history of ACT UP.

Columbia Visuals spoke to Hubbard about the process of collecting archival footage and creating a narrative arc.

ACT UP protesters use faux tombstones to represent the real causes  of death for People with AIDS.

ACT UP protesters use faux tombstones to represent the real causes 
of death for People with AIDS.

CV:  Where did you find the archival footage and how did you get it?

It’s accessible. All people need to do is go down to the New York Public Library on 42nd street.

I spent two years looking at every single videotape in that collection, picking footage that I wanted. After the two-year process, I identified 75 hours of video that I wanted to use as the basis of this film. I had to get permission from all the filmmakers. Once I got permission, the library delivered the tapes to a dub house, which transferred the tapes to hard drives.

Filmmaker Jim Hubbard

Filmmaker Jim Hubbard

Because I lived through [the AIDS crisis], I had an idea of the most important things. I knew I had to include the seize and control of the FDA, Stop the Church, and Day of Desperation.

Early in the process I thought I would make a four-hour film, and that it would have the entire history of ACT UP. I soon realized that a) it wasn’t possible ,and b) it wasn’t necessary. What was necessary was a primer that tells the basic story, and using that to inspire people to tell other histories of the AIDS movement.

CV: ACT UP is the main character in the documentary, but there are a lot of supporting characters. Why have so many voice?  

They way most documentary films are made in this country is that you have five or six characters, the story has to be told through them, and they become the heroes of a particular movement. To do that [in this film] would have been a lie. That is not the way it happened – ACT UP was a mass movement. So in order to tell the real story of ACT UP, I had  to tell the story from a lot of peoples’ points of view. And that’s why so many people appear on the screen in my film.

The oral history interviews are long format interviews that lasted from an hour to five hours. We treated them like found footage. We didn’t go out looking for sound bites. We decided “Ok, we need someone who talks about what ACT UP wanted at the FDA?” in order to introduce this section. We needed characters to explicate what was happening on the screen.

CV: What advice would you give someone wanting to tell a story using archival material?

Jump in the deep end: you have to make a commitment. You can’t be intimidated by the enormity of the work.

People think you need funding to do a thing now; that’s how the world is structured. But you don’t need funding to make films; you can do them very cheaply. Worry about the funding later, just do it.

You have to some conception of the history. At the same time you have to be open to the spirit of discovery and finding all the material that exits and looking at it, and then finding the people who can talk about it in an interesting and perceptive way.

You should make the film that you want to tell, and that comes organically from the history and material.

Screenshots/photos by Jim Hubbard .

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