The story of the AIDS epidemic is one which continues to be chronicled on screens both big (Dallas Buyers Club) and small (The Normal Heart). And at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, a number of projects are giving voice to an underrepresented aspect of the 1980s crisis that gave rise to a worldwide epidemic. Moving away from stories centered on white middle- and upper-middle class gay men, this handful of features are turning their eyes to the way AIDS affected (and continues to affect) Latinos.
If you want to find a film that epitomizes the way HIV has begun shedding its stigma, there’s no better example than Jose Villalobos’ El Charro de Toluquilla. Following the eponymous charro, Jaime García, the film shows us “the quintessential macho Mariachi,” as its synopsis suggests, who just so happens is HIV-positive. In one of the earliest scenes in the film, he’s drunkenly fraternizing with some friends of his where they all commend him for being able to lead such a normal life, one unencumbered by his diagnosis.
The 25 years that have elapsed between Truth or Dare and Strike a Pose show have far we have come.
What appears on the surface as a shining example of progress and tolerance — in a mostly rural community no less — soon gives way to an appallingly homophobic conversation that suggests the only reason their friend has survived all these years is his own resilience. “Jotos,” they suggest, merely shrivel up and die because of shame. That the Charro later suggests that it’s a miracle from God that allowed him to bear a healthy child positions the film as less a chronicle of how far we’ve come than an example of how riddled with homophobia and machismo the conversation around AIDS and HIV remains.
This is precisely what comes up in Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s documentary, Strike a Pose. Focusing on the group of male dancers (including José Gutiérrez and Luis Camacho) that joined Madonna in her infamous Blond Ambition tour, the doc emerges as a meditation on the way an HIV diagnosis forced many into silence. This, of course, to Madonna: Truth or Dare fans, should come as no surprise. Gabriel Trupin, best remembered as an outgoing dancer who famously made out with fellow tourmate ‘Slam’ Gauwloos on camera (in a clip he had implored the Material Girl to cut from the 1991 documentary as he wasn’t out yet) died in 1995 from AIDS complications. The narrative of Strike a Pose, which openly deals with Gabriel’s diagnosis and death also turns quite intentionally on the way two other dancers dealt then (and now) with their own HIV status.
In many ways, the 25 years that have elapsed between Truth or Dare and Strike a Pose show have far we have come. What remained an elusive and shameful secret in that already groundbreaking documentary and tour (which openly encouraged safe sex and featured open talks about AIDS), can now take center stage, showing us necessary images of healthy men living with HIV who are old enough to remember (and can still feel the effects) of having lived through the early 90s when a diagnosis was still seen as a near death sentence.
That, perhaps, is the most transgressive aspect of both Charro and Strike a Pose, two films that, despite their differences give us access to AIDS narratives that center on those living with HIV today. More often, the on-screen narratives we’ve been given (think Philadelphia, And the Band Played On, RENT) have predictably if necessarily focused on death. In trying to find new ways of tackling this media narrative, which has also often hinged on US-based, white well-off protagonists, two Tribeca films have turned their eyes on the intersection of Latin American culture and the AIDS epidemic.
Aldarondo’s documentary tackles head on the way Catholicism and a strong, family-driven culture converged to make the suffering of gay Latinos who found themselves battling this so-called “gay cancer” even more unbearable.
Marina Person’s Califórnia is a coming of age film about Estela, a Brazilian teenager in 1984 who dreams of traveling to that west coast state to meet up with her uncle, whom she idolizes. But as the film unfolds, we learn that her uncle Carlos, a music journalist who’s nurtured his niece’s eclectic musical tastes (their shared fave is David Bowie, obviously) has been hiding a part of himself from his family, finding refuge and liberation in the sunny California coast of the late 70s and early 80s. Estela soon learns that her uncle is dying of AIDS. The juxtaposition of Estela’s sexual liberation and Carlos’s death speaks loudly of the way sex has often been used to police certain people’s behaviors. That Estela throws herself wholeheartedly into an affair with the new weirdo kid in town who everyone else thinks is gay, suggests that Person wants to push for a celebration of the sexuality of those in the margins.
But the issue of the silent, often shameful histories of Latin American men that suffered from AIDS during the height of its crisis, is best summed up in the structure of Cecilia Aldarondo’s Memories of a Penitent Heart. Knowing that there was an untold story behind her uncle’s life and death, Aldarondo set out to find out more about her uncle; how he bridged his own Catholic upbringing with his later liberated sexuality, how he faced his AIDS diagnosis and impending death with visions of purgatory and hell that had littered his early life. Aldarondo’s documentary, more pointedly than any other film at the festival (or in recent memory, really), tackles head on the way Catholicism and a strong, family-driven culture converged to make the suffering of gay Latinos who found themselves battling this so-called “gay cancer” even more unbearable.
As Aldarondo told Remezcla, “These are very current issues, especially in cultures where religion continues to dominate what we can and can’t talk about in families. In the past few years we’ve seen a spate of films about the AIDS crisis and they have been, by and large, by and about white middle/upper-middle class gay men. And while many of the film are doing something laudable there is a kind of danger in taking one or two histories and universalizing them as histories of the AIDS crisis.” Thankfully, if these Tribeca Film Festival flicks are anything to go by (and here we should add HFFNY’s opening night film El Acompañante) there’s an increased interest in broadening the AIDS narratives we’ve been offered so far.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13 – 24, 2016. We partnered with Tribeca to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Latino talent at this year’s fest. Follow our coverage on remezcla.com and tribecafilm.com.