30: Film Archive

New Zealand listener, 26 Apr 2014


In 1984 the first person died from an Aids related condition in New Zealand. Homosexuality was illegal. It would be another two years before the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was passed in 1986. Condoms were still primarily associated with the prevention of pregnancy; in the mid eighties the safe sex campaign, “Sky diving without a parachute,” was metaphorical, rather than direct.

30 is a moving image exhibition curated by Gareth Watkins for the Film Archive. The title is not just a milestone in New Zealand’s social history – it’s an echo – the age that many gay men first diagnosed with HIV AIDS were when they died.

Watkins says; “I came out as a gay guy in the early nineties.  All through my high school years homosexuality was only ever mentioned in health classes; and then only in relation to AIDS.  A joke at the time was – what does Gay stand for – Got AIDS Yet? The narrative was written for you. Gay = AIDS = death.”

Watkins is the 2014 curator–at-large for the Film Archive in Wellington. A documentary maker and photographer with a background in radio, Watkins has approached the curator-at large role with experience and focus. 30 is his second exhibition drawing on footage from the Film Archive’s collection. Over the year he will complete four shows. “If I only get this one opportunity these are the exhibitions I would want to do,” Watkins says.

30 combines HIV AIDs footage and audio from 1984-2006 to create an exhibition that conveys universal experiences of “love and loss, discrimination, stigma, compassion and support.” The show captures a range of responses from Douglas Wright’s dance Elegy to an interview with Dr Michael Gottlieb on TV3 in 2006; at that point AIDS had killed 25-million people worldwide. Fifteen-minute thematic sequences play across seven screens in the gallery. In between each sequence the screens wash to blue; a homage to Derek Jarman’s 1993 film of the same name, released four months before his own death from Aids related complications.

Watkins has localized the reference to Jarman: a stanza from Welby Ings poem for his partner Kevin Todd is read over the blue screens. An athlete, Todd’s life is also commemorated by Welby in a beautifully realised panel for the New Zealand AIDS Memorial Quilt; four panels from the Quilt will hang in the archive alongside the exhibition.  It was Welby’s response to Todd’s death – “making such a beautiful quilt panel” – that helped shape Watkins initial approach to 30. The focus is on personal stories.

“I want this show to be life affirming.  There are a number of mothers’ in the exhibition talking about loving their sons unconditionally.  Hopefully this exhibition will allow people to reflect on how we have treated others in the past and how we treat each other now.”

The voices from the past are tender, but also brutal and bracing. 30 includes a brief Eyewitness interview from 1987 with Invercargill MP, Norman Jones who suggested that people living HIV AIDs should be placed in quarantine. “Yes, I would suggest that, why not?” Jones tells the interviewer; “It’s either them or me. They’re going to kill me aren’t they?” Early news footage shows American police wearing protective yellow gloves when placing protestors under arrest at an Aids rally. The crowd chant: “Aids, Aids, stop the shame.”

Many New Zealanders will also remember Eve Van Grafhorst; one of the first children in Australia infected by a blood transfusion. Eve’s parents relocated to Hastings in 1985 after facing prejudice from their local preschool in Kincumber, New South Wales. Talking about the importance of her story, Watkins recalls how Eve gave AIDS, “a different face. She was able to reach out – particularly through television – to a mainstream audience and educate them about AIDS and discrimination.”

The courage and work of early activists like Bruce Burnett and Alastair Hall who ‘put themselves out there publically’ are commemorated too. Returning from America in 1983, Burnett helped establish the Aids Support Network, now the New Zealand Aids Foundation.  On a 1989 episode of Frontline Alastair Hall, who set up the first national Body Positive Peer Support Group, talks about receiving his own diagnosis over the phone. The show includes footage from nineties HERO parades conveying the importance of self eestem.

“In the late eighties there was a lot of stigma in society not only around HIV AIDS but also around homosexuality. As marginalised peoples; how do you start to feel good about yourself and in so doing reduce risk taking behaviours?”

Thirty years on public understanding of how HIV/AIDs is contracted and the communities it impacts has changed, as has the prognosis. “Phrases like AIDS victim that were used by the media in the 1980s wouldn’t be used today,” Watkins says. People are now living to retirement age with HIV and there are different considerations at stake.

“The stigma is quieter, but still present.”

During the curation of 30, Watkins received a letter from an HIV+ man who chose not to be included in the exhibition, concerned it might impact his job security. The letter begins at a point twenty-four years ago; “Thoughts of long-term plans did not exceed 6 months. It was such a different time and place, hell it was last century.”