"In 1979, friends began to get sick with lingering flus, night sweats and ongoing fatigue," begins John Killacky's voice-over in his film "Walking With the Dead." The 1996 short is one of three films he made in the '90s to grieve the physical and emotional devastation of AIDS in the gay community.
On Tuesday, December 1, to honor World AIDS Day, the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe will present "Scenes From the AIDS War," a free screening of all three of Killacky's intense and highly personal shorts. A group discussion and commemoration will follow.
"AIDS was a very different disease then," Killacky said in a telephone interview, referring to the general climate of panic surrounding HIV in the 1980s. "Everyone was dying."
Most Vermonters know Killacky as the executive director of Burlington's Flynn Center for the Performing Arts — not as a filmmaker. In the 1990s, he was living in Minneapolis and working as the Walker Art Center's curator of performing arts. But, he explains, "Artists were trying to grapple with how to memorialize people, and how to find hope for themselves and their friends, and how to deal with grief. We just began picking up tools."
One tool Killacky picked up — in self-aware testament to his amateur filmmaker status — was a pixel camera designed for children. Its low-tech qualities contributed to the raw aesthetic of his first film, "Unforgiven Fire," completed in 1993. That short features two "versions" of Killacky. In the first, he sits on a stool in nondescript clothing and reads into a microphone a personal testimony about losing what was then 96 friends, lovers and community members to AIDS. The background is stark, and the overall sensibility is of a somber public reading captured for posterity with subpar recording equipment. Eerily, the viewer can tell when Killacky makes direct eye contact with the camera but cannot reciprocate his gaze because of the picture's poor resolution.
Within the first couple of minutes, the film cuts to a second version of Killacky — slumped, naked and defeated. He sits against a wooden beam, and barbed wire in the foreground suggests both the Holocaust and Christ's crown of thorns. The voice-over, intoning names of the dead, continues as drops of blood begin to spatter him from an unknown source overhead. His eyes remain cast downward.
This scene was filmed using 16mm film and remains in black and white. (The footage was later transferred to video to be edited together with the pixel camera material.) Killacky notes that the decision not to shoot in color "allows [viewers] to project in a different way, because it's not realistic" and that "otherwise it looked like a bad horror film."
Oscillating between two mourning figures, "Unforgiven Fire" offers a powerful commentary on the nature of grief. One version of Killacky continues to get dressed, to stand, to form sentences and use words; the other hovers, exhausted, between the living and the dead. The latter suffers from what Killacky calls in conversation "the accumulation of death."
His next two short films, "Stolen Shadows" (1996) and "Walking with the Dead," maintain a similar look and tone. But in them, more figures are introduced — friends and community members who were willing to shave their heads and be filmed in the nude. In "Stolen Shadows," they lie motionless in a heap on the ground (filming took hours), while in "Walking with the Dead" they "dance" together as pairs struggling to remain upright. "I felt that a community came together for me," says Killacky. "A whole community was holding sacred what was happening to all of us."
Killacky readily acknowledges that many people, not just gay men, died and continue to die from AIDS, but he notes, "What I do in my work is be as myopic as possible."
In conversation, he also implies parallels between early AIDS hysteria and current political issues, including domestic civil rights and attitudes towards Syrian refugees. He points out that AIDS victims were social pariahs; some thought HIV-positive individuals should be isolated in internment camps. "Even today, gay men cannot give blood to the Red Cross because of the phobia," Killacky says.
His films are currently in multiple archives, including the New York Public Library's AIDS Activist Videotape Collection 1985-2000. They have been screened extensively around the U.S. and internationally.
On its website, Helen Day explains that the screening event will join "8,000 other national and international arts museums, galleries and centers, AIDS service organizations, libraries and schools" to recognize World AIDS Day.
One of them is Burlington-based Vermont CARES. On Monday, November 30, the nonprofit will kick off a week of statewide activities and events including multiple screenings of the film "Breaking Barriers: Fighting Stigma," a display of AIDS quilt panels, free HIV testing and a soccer-tournament fundraiser.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Screening Process: Three Film Shorts Commemorate World AIDS Day"
Rachel is an arts staff writer at Seven Days. She writes from the intersections of art, visual culture and anthropology, and has contributed to The New Inquiry, The LA Review of Books and Artforum, among other publications.