Hope in Heartbreak: An Interview with David Weissman

David Weissman is a filmmaker that splits his time between San Francisco and Portland. His 2002 film, The Cockettes, a documentary created with Bill Weber about a trailblazing performance group of hippie drag queens active in the late 1960’s to the early 70’s in San Francisco, has played all over the world to much acclaim. (And won “Best Documentary of the Year” from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. ) Weissman is currently in the process of working on another documentary called “Heartbreak and Heroism: Stories from the Plague Years in San Francisco”.

Along with Russ Gage, he also curates and organizes the Portland Queer Documentary film festival. It is the only festival in the United States that is devoted to showing only Queer Documentaries. This year, it takes place May 28 through 31 at the Clinton Street Theater in SE Portland. More information can be found here. Last week I was lucky enough to get the chance to sit down with David and talk to him about his various projects.

What is the origin of your inspiration for the current project you are working on now?

Well, what I’m making a documentary about San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic. Basically it was a completely extraordinary, singular event that lasted in its intense period for about fifteen to twenty years, and it has never really been documented, so I want to try to capture a deep and reflective look back at what that experience was about, specifically within San Francisco, for San Franciscans. My idea about how it’s going to be structured is that it is going to be primarily interviews with people who lived in San Francisco since before the epidemic started, because I want it to be people who already had a relationship with the city, who had some sense of why they came to San Francisco and the magic of the city, and then how that vision of what San Francisco was supposed to be was transformed and altered by the coming of the epidemic.

How are you finding your subjects?

I’m doing it by an organic process. I’m not necessarily focused on the substance of individual people’s history, because anyone who lived there had valuable stories to tell. I’m really looking for people who are really thoughtful, and who are really are going to be able and willing to sort of think deeply and go into a deep emotional reflection over what that experience was.

When you are starting projects like this, do you find that you come across tension between sort of what you want to invoke as opposed to what ends up coming out?

I don’t know yet, because I’m in the process. But I think one of the things that feels really great about this process for me is that I really know what I want the movie to do, how that exactly is going to play out I don’t know, but I feel very clear about my intentions around what I want the film to be, and I am also fairly relaxed about the process. I trust myself, and I also trust my filmmaking partner, who is the editor of this project, Bill Weber. We both think very similarly.

What is your intent behind the film?

It’s big! It’s an onion with multiple layers, and the core of it, and it’s similar to the way I described my intentions of making The Cockettes, is I want to illuminate a really extraordinary historical experience for people who don’t know much about it. I want to capture a sense of something amazing and awful, and miraculous, and terrifying, that happened, and I also want to honor the experiences of the people who lived through it, and give voice to the richness and complexity of that experience. So those are the two sort of primary objectives. And beyond that there’s a lot: I want to metaphorically address so many things beyond the specifics of the epidemic. The subject matter is sort of perfect for that. How we deal with life and death, how we deal with grief, how we deal with fear. How much we’re capable of rising to the occasion when the unexpected crisis appears, the importance of being emotionally aware, and emotionally conncected, and how we process hurts and loss, and how we can find beauty in tragedy. There’s a lot of themes in it, that I think don’t necessarily need to be addressed overtly, but the subject matter will allow those themes to be implicitly addressed.


David in 1977.

This is a lot of intense, heavy stuff. I was wondering if you find you need to practice some sort of personal detachment when you are going through this. Or do you find that you don’t have to detach?

I don’t think it’s a matter of have to, I don’t think I want to detach. If I was still in that state of needing to detach I wouldn’t be making the film. The film for me for some degree is a reflection of my own state of mind and my confidence that I can reenter this material in a positive way, rather than have it be simply traumatic to reenter.

The specific origin of the film came out of many, many conversations that I’d had with my recent ex-boyfriend, about my own experience living through the epidemic in San Francisco. He was much younger than me, and in one of these conversations that were often very emotional he said, “Well why don’t you make a film about this?” and under most normal conditions I would have said, “Over my dead body!”, but somehow in that moment, the suggestion sort of stuck, and I thought, maybe this is something I should do, and maybe I’m ready to do it, and that got the process going.

So it was intensely personal.

Very personal. I mean I started living in San Francisco in 1976–the profile of the people I’m wanting to interview is my profile as well. I moved to San Fransisco because to me it was a magic place, and in many ways San Francisco has always been my muse….

Are there things you are hoping to uncover or highlight about San Francisco or about certain people or movements that were started via the epidemic?

Thematically yes, I will have to let the specifics of the interviews determine that, because in each of the interviews I’ve done so far–I’ve done three–they were all a little different than expected, and there were certain things I was hoping to get that didn’t come up, and then there were things that came up that hadn’t occurred to me. And I think that with this film more than with maybe other films, I want the interview process to happen organically, I don’t want to control it too much, because I want it to be, to some degree, a therapeutic conversation for both me and the person being interviewed. To some degree, I’m going to let it play out, and I think you get richer stories if you don’t try to direct the interview too much. The possibility of finding richer and deeper places is greater.

It sounds like you are right in the middle of the process. I was wondering, what sustains you, through these longer processes?

That’s an interesting question because I am acutely bad at making long-term commitments to things. On some level I think it’s having a good collaborator.

So in this case your editor?

Yes, who was my co-director on The Cockettes, Bill Weber. To some degree I feel like I’m not really driven to completion on this, I feel like I’m allowing myself to function in a process-oriented way which eases the burden of anxiety around that stuff. That was not true with The Cockettes: will I be able to complete this, will I be able to pull this off, will I raise the money…With this, I’m so trusting that what I’m doing is valuable, that I also don’t have the same sort of ego need to achieve at this point, so between those two things I just kinda feel like ok take it, trust the process, do the best you can, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And I’m really passionate about it. I did not want to make another film after The Cockettes, and I never wanted to make a documentary about a serious and depressing subject matter.

I’ve never been driven in that direction, and there could be no more painful subject in a way to be delving into. It’s partially that I feel like I can make an inspirational film out of this, and it’s not just going to be a sad story, but it’s going to be something very beautiful, that is something that I feel very passionately about.

I’m really an idealist, I’m very pessimistic but also extremely idealistic, and I’m doing this because I think this needs to be done and because I feel like I’ll be able to bring something to it that unique and valuable.

So in both cases, with The Cockettes and this film, there’s a bunch of collaboration and various people and histories involved. Do you feel like you are making the films for the people that you were involved with, and do you feel like you owe them anything also?

Yes, I feel like as a survivor of the epidemic, I feel the burden of telling the story. I felt that in relation to The Cockettes, as someone who came at the very tail end of the hippie generation, but was so deeply impacted by it, and wanted to honor the people that changed my life dramatically, many of who were gone, for various reasons. The AIDS epidemic in a way made me a permature elder, in that so many of the generation above me, the people that paved the paths for me died, and I lost a lot of my mentors. It put me in the position in some ways of saying ok, somebody has to be the bearer of history. To some degree that comes from having a Holocaust background in my family, and knowing the importance of telling history, particularly painful history, so yeah. I feel like I’m making it both to honor the dead, I mean they are not going to know, I don’t believe in an afterlife or anything. And to honor the people who have lived through it and have terrible wounds. Not only terrible wounds, but people who have lived through it and have become amazing, extraordinary, rich human beings because of having lived through it. I really want the movie to address that. About how living through trauma, whether it be a break-up, or a loss, or an earthquake, or the swine flu, or whatever, if one approaches is in a conscious way, even if it’s really painful while it’s going on, it can really feed and nurture one’s soul, and help people become, much bigger people than they would have become, otherwise.
David and friends at the Haight Street Fair in 1978. 2 of the 3 men pictured with him died of AIDS.

I wanted to ask you how you came to filmmaking. Did you always want to?

No, never wanted to be a filmmaker. It didn’t even cross my mind until I was in my mid-to-late twenties.

I grew up in LA, and it was like…

…everywhere…

It never appealed to me, I hardly went to movies, when I was in my early twenties. And something kind of shifted and I realized it was the only thing that incorporated so many aspects of both my personality and my interests and my skills, my politics and my sense of humor.

Were you an artist?

No, I worked in politics. I was a political activist, and a hippie, and acid taker, and Grateful Dead fan. But I worked in politics actually professionally in San Francisco for a while, and I waited tables, and I didn’t go to college. Filmmaking, I never started it with a plan. I’ve never had a plan, documentaries was never part of the plan. I just started making films and just one step at a time, took me to the next step. And nothing felt like there was any internal logic to it, looking forward, or being in the moment, but looking back it all makes total sense to me. The Cockettes made sense, looking back, whereas it never would have occurred to me to do something like that. The movie that I’m making now seems like a culmination. And again, I didn’t that there would be anything I else I would make a film on. And somehow when David suggested it to me, it was like “…this is going to be the big one.”

Can we talk about the Queer Documentary Festival?
Are there anything special that you want to highlight?

The great thing about this festival, it’s only four days long and eleven programs, we really get to pick stuff that we think is great. People always ask “what’s the highlight?” and well, you should really see everything. We really want to encourage the young guys to see the movies about the old lesbians. It happens at this festival. Partially because it is a documentary festival people choose to come because it’s substance, whereas with other festivals, there’s more fluffy comedies and entertainment things. People know that when they are coming to a doc fest, that they are willing to engage with more subject matter. I think that it does allow for more flexibility and choice.

We’re really focusing on films that were really inspiring this year. We thought about Obama, and the end of the Bush years, and economic anxiety and all of this kind of stuff, and thought let’s go for stuff that’s really going to inspire people. And partially after Milk, last year, so many people who did not know about the history came out of that movie with this feeling of, “I want more activism in the world”, so I’d like to do what we can with that. The whole idea with this festival is to create something that’s much more than just a screening series.We bring the filmmakers in, and really encourage an atmosphere of fun, and community, and engagement, because Portland doesn’t really have a lot of that for queers. We really want it to be something where people are going to leave feeling charged up to engage with queer life.
David and Russ Gage, the co-founder of the Portland Queer Documentary Festival.

Since you’d have a political life your whole life, what do you see what is different now, in terms of politics? A lot of people I talk to wonder: where is the rabble-rousing of the past? Is it romanticizing, or is there more of a complacency among people my age?

I think that’s been true for a really really long time. I think there’s little spurts of activism since the end of the Vietnam War, particularly with Act Up, during the AIDS epidemic. It’s just that it’s a different world. I watched the movie “Chicago 8” a couple of nights ago, which is a semi-animated history of the Democratic Convention riots in 1968, with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. It’s an interesting film. It was such a shocking reminder that there were 60, is 70, 80,000 people in the streets at the Democratic Convention, and that was part of a sustained period of 15, 20 years where those things were going on all the time. I don’t know if it’s romanticizing it, it’s just true, that this was a unique moment in American History, like the union movement in the 20’s and 30’s, where there really was this kind of activism. I don’t know that it makes sense to say, “well, why can’t it be like that now?”, because now is what it is. We have to make due with what we have. There’s different tools now. A lot of people just aren’t interested, and a lot of people don’t know a lot. I’m hopeful that Obama’s election is creating a different sense of the value of taking action after so many years of the Republicans saying, “let’s not do anything”.

What would you like see young queers doing? What would excite you, or is there something you see going on?

I think the most important thing always is curiosity: who am I? where did I come from? One of the things that we are showing at the festival is Word is Out, which was made in 1977, and it was the first movie where gay people were on screen talking about what it meant to be gay. That had never happened before, and I’m hoping, also with my own film, the AIDs film, so many of my younger friends have been interested that I’m making this film, and that makes me feel good. Because curiosity is the basis of everything. You have to have a desire to learn to move. And see where it goes from there. I always appreciate people being curious, and wanting to know more.

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