In 1981 The New York Times began reporting on a mysterious illness that was striking down gay men. As the first victims of the disease that would eventually be called AIDS were dying, Josh Rosenzweig was coming of age as a young gay man. Rosenzweig now reflects back on the past three decades with the powerful, heartbreaking new documentary 30 Years From Here, which chronicles the trials and tribulations unleashed by the AIDS pandemic. "I want this film to jostle people out of complacency," he says. Rosenzweig, who is also senior vice president, original programming and development
for here! (owned by the same parent company as The Advocate), and his team have assembled personal accounts from many of the key activists and medical experts, such as ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, choreographer-fundraiser Jerry Mitchell, and Marjorie Hill, CEO of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. All were there in the beginning and have witnessed how the disease has ravaged lives as well as the hope generated by advances in medical research. Rosenzweig tells The Advocate why he was compelled to make the film and shares what he learned in the process.
The Advocate: What was the impetus to make 30 Years From Here?
Josh Rosenzweig: A year ago when we began to plan the 2011 original production slate, we felt very strongly that we acknowledge this 30 years period with some sort of original program. At first we were going to follow the same timeline that The Advocate was creating for the magazine and Advocate.com, but as we began to work on the film it seemed to be following its own path. However, then we were faced with the Herculean task of scaling this giant monolith, so to speak. When you look back at three decades of this pandemic, the question is what part of the story do you tell? So we just jumped in and one interview led us to the next and so on... and the story slowly began to emerge organically.
There have been numerous other documentaries that look back at the ravages of AIDS. What distinguishes your film from others?
As I mentioned, AIDS is a huge topic. There are, literally, millions of stories that can be told about HIV and AIDS, and ours is just one among many... But, I think what may set this piece apart a bit from others is that it’s very New York City-centric. It is a unique combination of interviews from medical experts, activists, and everyday people who were here on the ground in the early ‘80s, working and living with this epidemic all around them — and these are the stories that we have not heard. We also felt that we wanted and needed to present the story in a somewhat matter-of-fact manner and let it speak for itself. Therefore, it is somewhat devoid of sentimentality. It’s not brutal, but I would say it is very frank.
How eager were people to be interviewed and participate in the film?
Everyone we asked said yes, immediately. Everyone had their own reasons for wanting to participate, but I was amazed (and thrilled and honored) that so many people were willing to take the time to share their stories with us. And that is one of the parts that I am most proud of that we — Here Media and here! TV, in particular — now have as part of our permanent archive, the stories of the people. These captured interviews are a vital and rich part of our history. And long after we are gone will stand as our legacy.
Several of the folks we interviewed said a similar thing, that they had not spoken about any of this in over 20 years. And the fact that they were willing to open their box of memories for us was astonishing and I, personally, was humbled and I am eternally grateful.
How willing were people to dredge up the past and share their memories and photographs?
People pretty much offered. As painful as these memories are, I think a common sentiment was “the stories must be told so we do not forget.” So, there were many of tearful afternoons in the studio, but as I mentioned, I am so honored that these people trusted us with their stories and the memories of the people they lost.
What were some of the most memorable stories shared during filming?
Every single person in the documentary has something astonishing and beautiful to say. I am not kidding. That is what made our job so difficult. Paring down these interviews was challenging for us all. There are hundred and hundred of pages of transcribed interviews and hours and hours of tape filled with stories and insights and memories and predictions — we could have made an eight-part miniseries. So, I am going to answer your question, but know that these are just four examples among dozens and dozens.
Larry Flick tells an astonishing story about how he was talking with a young person recently who referred to today as ‘post AIDS’ and Larry asks, “Did I miss the press release that it’s over?” Shocking.
Dvorah Stohl talks about her summers in the Pines on Fire Island and how she was surrounded by so much love and joy and she never imagined, in her wildest dreams that it would end the way it did. Heartbreaking.
I love when Larry Kramer says that every medication on the market is a direct result of the work of ACT UP. “Period, end of story.” He’s 100% correct!
I am moved when Danny Logan, who is 24 years old, talks about how he felt contracting the virus was inevitable. Devastating.
And as I said these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
What did you learn about the 30 years of the epidemic that most surprised you?
I think I was surprised at how much of it I was actually a part of. I kind of forgot for a moment how I personally came of age in the early years of AIDS and how it has been an integral part of my life ever since. Working on this documentary and speaking with these people forced me to relive my own journey. And I think some of my personal experiences were unintentionally infused into the film. And I also realized how quickly this could all be forgotten and we have to keep fighting. It’s not over.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
I hope people are moved to take action again — in whatever way possible – large scale, small scale, it doesn’t matter. As Regan Hoffman, Editor in Chief of POZ magazine says, “we have the ability to prevent the spread of HIV.” So I want this film to jostle people out of complacency and get them to move their respective asses — until this is entirely eradicated. There is work to be done.
It must have been simultaneously draining and exhilarating to work on this project along side all the other original programming that here! TV is producing.
Well, it was definitely a group effort every step of the way. We had two great editors, Athena Maroulis and Keren Aronoff, working on it. Robbie Imes managed all the interviews, as well as overseeing the research end. Our awesome research coordinator Ryan Paul and, most of all, our general manager Eric Feldman kept it moving, on track, and constantly pushed to make it better. We love all our babies that come out of the here! TV factory, but this one, I think I can honestly say we are all very proud of.
To watch 30 Years From Here, subscribe to here! TV here or subscribe to the here! Online Player here.
Watch a clip from the film below.