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The Sweet Taste of Queer Victory in The Times of Harvey Milk

Over the course of four features and several shorts, Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf has mined the histories hidden in archives, stitching together a rich and complicated view of twentieth-century America. He’s drawn to subjects that are misunderstood or fly under the radar: with his 2008 debut, Wild Combination, he shined a light on a neglected genius of avant-garde music, Arthur Russell; in the 2013 Teenage, he traced the birth of youth culture; and in last year’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, he combed through countless hours of VHS footage collected by a woman who obsessively taped what was on her television for thirty years. His latest project, Spaceship Earth, is fascinating account of an early nineties phenomenon in which eight people built and isolated themselves for two years inside Biosphere 2, a recreation of Earth’s ecosystem. In anticipation of the film’s digital release last weekend, Wolf wrote this reflection on a classic queer documentary that showed him the power of cinema created out of archival material—and its enduring importance for marginalized communities.



A few summers ago, I went to Anthology Film Archives to see a restoration of the 1977 gay liberation documentary Word Is Out. The film is deceptively simple in its conceit—interviews with twenty-six men and women about being openly gay. The filmmaker Peter Adair was seeking visibility, so he and his collaborators went across the country to ask their peers, “Who are we?” My friends and I left the theater profoundly moved by the beauty, resilience, diversity, and humanity of our fellow queers. This was the early days of gay liberation, and Word Is Out was a milestone in building our history.  

The making of the film was a community endeavor itself, produced by a collective of San Francisco–based filmmakers called the Mariposa Film Group. One of those filmmakers was Rob Epstein, then twenty-two years old. Seven years later, he would complete his first feature film as sole director, the Academy Award–winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk.

As a gay teenage activist in the late 1990s, I found queer films in the public library—everything from Kenneth Anger to Issac Julien—and that’s where I first saw The Times of Harvey Milk. I was in San Jose, an hour south of San Francisco, and I would visit the city regularly to go to activist meetings with other gay teens. Afterward we’d meet in Dolores Park, a grassy, elevated field, which back then had an intergenerational stew of punks and hippies, lounging partially clothed. One night, looking down at the magical cityscape, I was struck by the gravity of the fact that a generation of queer people were missing from plain sight. Some of those warm faces from Word Is Out, and too many of their friends, had died of AIDS in the face of homophobic government neglect.

It was just at the beginning of this terrifying and angry era when The Times of Harvey Milk was released. In fact, that year—1984—researchers identified the HIV virus as the cause of AIDS. San Francisco, a city that until recently felt like a cozy gay village, was besieged by the epidemic. As a teenager, I held that sense of loss, and in the absence of so many gay liberation pioneers, I wanted to learn my history.

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