As film scholar Jane Gaines notes in her groundbreaking article “Political Mimesis” (1), documentaries have a reputation for being a catalyst for social change, yet so few have actually succeeded in generating a bodily response from the audience where they literally jump out of their seats to join the call to action. However, as Roger Hallas reveals in Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image, while he was an student at Oxford University in 1990 he watched the video Stop the Church (Robert Hilferty, 1990), an audio-visual document of the radical queer activist groups ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and WHAM (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization)’s demonstration during Cardinal O’Connor’s sermon at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1989. He was so overpowered by the video that although he didn’t physically jump out of his seat to create lustful anarchy, he was nevertheless inspired to join ACT UP, and fight aggressively against the religious, governmental, cultural, medical and institutional marginalisation of AIDS. As Hallas states: “It was able to move me with the dynamic of a social movement, that is to say, to draw the individual into a collective struggle for social transformation through the construction of a new identity position” (p. 24). Stop the Church transformed Hallas into an activist. But what allure did it and other activist videos have that influenced an individual to become part of a movement? Why were viewers compelled to become active participants? These questions are the linchpins to any understanding of the political urgency and academic importance of Reframing Bodies in the “post-AIDS” Western World. They also help frame why it is a necessity to remember, and if possible to bear witness to not only this powerful history, but also to the current historical moment where AIDS is still marginalised, and no longer viewed as a deadly contagion.
Hallas makes an extremely convincing argument about how viewing AIDS media during a time when AIDS was a very painful, albeit rapid death sentence in the West in the 1980s and 1990s, was a political act within and of itself. He believes that watching these videos is an act of bearing witness:
Bearing witness involves an address to the other; it occurs only in a framework of relationality, in which the testimonial act is itself witnessed by the other. In its address to an other, be that an analyst, a jury, or an audience, bearing witness affirms the reality of the event witnessed; moreover it produces a “truth”. (p. 10)
Bearing witness is a performative act that is used to not only reveal the participant’s visibility, but that can also be considered a strategy to spring the audience into action. By using the framework of bearing witness to AIDS media, which incorporates narrative, documentary, and experimental film and video modes, it gives the reader an understanding of how this work successfully empowers and politically mobilises the audience. Bearing witness reveals how an audience can directly engage with the moving image by “embodied immediacy”, which Hallas describes as, “the urgent, visceral sense of the here and now” (p. 31), even though the documented action previously happened. Granted, it is important to recognise that that those in the audience who had been directly affected by AIDS were already compelled to become activists, but this was not the case for Hallas, because he had never met anyone with AIDS as a student, and the UK was only then falling into the full grasp of the disease. The revelation of Hallas’ political commitment to the subject, and his apt theoretical framework of bearing witness, sutures incredibly diverse forms of AIDS media, which he writes about masterfully in Reframing Bodies.
Besides effectively using his own experience as a viewer who was deeply impacted by AIDS media, Hallas also illuminates how the makers of this media, through a myriad of innovative styles and progressive performance strategies, were able to effectively reach their respective audiences. For example, many of the works that Hallas meticulously analyses in the Reframing Bodies foreground how these radical media makers disrupted and challenged the supposed legitimacy of “expert” talking heads that are ubiquitous in documentaries and mainstream news shows (where anchors deceptively appear objective under the guise of journalism when reporting about AIDS). One of the strategies that AIDS media makers used to undermine the “talking head” in their work was to reject the use of their participant as visual evidence, which supports the media maker’s rhetorical argument, and instead used the “talking head” as an explicit performer who self-reflexively addresses the audience. This performance helps the viewer to see the constructedness of prosaic documentary tropes, and tentatively creates a more personal relationship with the material where the audience is not talked down to by the “talking head”. One of most well-known activist videos Hallas uses as evidence to support this argument is No Regret (Marlon Riggs, 1992). Riggs’ documentary follows the lives of five African-American men who are living with HIV/AIDS. These men would have made fantastic traditional “talking head” experts about the subject, as they embody the personal and political struggles of how the disease affects individuals. However, as Hallas notes, Riggs did not position them as “talking heads” in his work:
In naming his interviewees at the very end, Riggs emphasizes the performative nature of their presence in the video, as though the sequence were a cast list preceding the end credits. No Regret is in fact less interested in sharing individual stories and articulating subjectivities for their own sake than in giving expression to a community-constituting relationality across various indices of difference. (p. 55)
The participants in No Regret reveal how Riggs strived to engage his audience with the notion that his subjects should not be seen not as just individuals, but as a collective battling against AIDS. The absence of information identifying participants until the end of the documentary reveals how anonymity actually unifies them with the audience. The viewer is anonymous to the participants and vice-versa, but more importantly, what unites the participants/performers and the audience together is their symbiotic relationship of bearing witness to AIDS.
Hallas consistently proves that bearing witness is a viable lens through which to view AIDS media by his meticulous research, theoretical support of scholars in the field, and wonderfully detailed analyses of the AIDS media throughout Reframing Bodies. His scholarship reveals how it is possible for some moving images to create not just political consciousness, but also social change.
Roger Hallas, Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2009.