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Monday, December 15, 2014

The Forgotten Decade-Long AIDS Vigil: Filmmaker Nick Aquilino Recalls the Early Days of HIV and AIDS

Posted By on Mon, Dec 15, 2014 at 1:39 PM


Death was everywhere in 1985. The gay community was being decimated by AIDS, at the time, a mysterious illness spread by sexual contact. The HIV virus destroyed the immune systems of its host — carriers would be bombarded with one opportunistic infection after another — pneumonia and skin cancers were the most common afflictions. Some sufferers simply wasted away.

At first, it appeared to be a disease affecting only gay men, and the response from religious leaders was judgement and the response from then President Ronald Reagan was a deafening silence.

Following the onset of this new, mystery illness, a group of gay men with AIDS set up an encampment in San Francisco's Civic Center. They would live there, in a tent city, they said, in order to draw attention to the deafening silence. 

The AIDS Vigil remained in Civic Center Plaza for 10 years — a record breaking act of civil disobedience. And the vigil drew an enormous amount of attention to the crisis at the time, where the organizers demanded funding for research and FDA approval of critical drugs.

Camp residents experienced harassment (anti-gay slurs, bashings) and support from the surrounding community and local doctors who provided free medical care for camp residents. But there was also harassment. When the vigil ended in 1995 there were only three camp residents left, down from the 20 who moved in a decade prior.

Today, the decade-long AIDS vigil has largely been forgotten from San Francisco's collective memory. But filmmaker, AIDS activist and longtime HV survivor Nick Aquilino hopes to change that. He is now hard at work on a new documentary about the vigil, its historical importance and the impact it had at the time.

Aquilino chats with SF Weekly from Florida, where he is now editing a pilot for a new TV series. 

click to enlarge NICK AQUILINO
  • Nick Aquilino
SF Weekly: Can you tell us about your background as a filmmaker?

Aquilino: I was a grad student at American Film Institute's producing program, but Hollywood requires that you be an indentured servant to rich and egocentric actors and directors, which is not a career I would ever want to be in. This was around the time I became HIV positive, and in Hollywood the prevailing attitude was that HIV was a death sentence. It was hard to get hired if anyone knew, so I left. 

I moved to Sausalito and started off by producing a no-budget film with local crew and actors, which was sold worldwide. All the profit went back to the distributor — I never made a dime. This was a rude awakening for an idealistic indie filmmaker. From then on, I concentrated on documentaries. 

SF Weekly: Can you tell us a bit about the history of the AIDS Vigil?

Aquilino: The Vigil began when Steve Russell and Burt Franks decided that they needed to have treatments for their AIDS diagnosis. There were none. In 1985, the virus had been raging for four years throughout the entire gay male community.

Funding was inadequate, and the men chained themselves to the door of the Federal Building in Civic Center Plaza, in the hope that arrest would lead to media attention.

The police did not arrest them, so many other people, hearing word on the street that there was a push to get treatments, went to the Federal Building and sat with them, linking arms if the police arrived. The small group grew steadily. The first members included two men who are long deceased from AIDS, Wes North and Jan Beck, who I interviewed on videotape in December 1985. A small tent village had been set up with a kitchen and an information table in the plaza. One of the first people to arrive was a nurse named Annie Crow who is one of the people narrating the opening to the promo of the documentary (see video below), and who spent several nights with them, sleeping on blankets on the hard bricks of the plaza.

SF Weekly: What was the message of the Vigil?

Aquilino: The message was simple and clear. We need treatments now. It was a desperate cry from a community that was systematically ignored and avoided by almost every sector of the government. 

SF Weekly: Can you address how gay men and lesbians once lived in separate, parallel communities, and how AIDS brought them together?

Aquilino: Gay men and lesbians had been living in somewhat separate communities: separate bars, separate parties and events. It was only with the advent of AIDS that it became clear to gay men that lesbians were the most supportive group in terms of actually putting themselves on the line. 

SF Weekly: How are you funding the film?

Aquilino: I am footing the bill right now. I'm hoping to be able to convince a foundation to support it. I've also started the process of Crowd Funding at Indie Go Go. The proposed title is Not With Standing. The distribution is unknown at this time, but hopefully it will be shown in time for the 30th anniversary of the AIDS Vigil, which is October 27, 2015, and it would be a wonderful project to show nationally on PBS for World AIDS 2015 if it can be funded and finished by that time.

SF Weekly: Who do you hope to interview:

Aquilino: It is my hope to include a one-on-one interview with Angela Davis, who was one of the Black Panthers, a Communist candidate for US Vice President, and who was arrested at the AIDS Vigil. Also Nancy Pelosi, who was a huge advocate for the Vigil. 

I shot a set of interviews with the men who were there at the Vigil while a student in the SF State broadcasting program in 1985. Since that time, I have uncovered a few fascinating pieces of video, including a scene of the police forming a line pushing a group of ACT UP protesters down Market Street and several large demonstrations that happened between 1985-1995 to call to attention to the devastation of AIDS.

SF Weekly: What would you like viewers to take from the film?

Aquilino: I would like to impress upon people how difficult it was to be HIV positive in 1985, and that the life of a gay male in the AIDS years was one of constant stress. At that time, it was only months or even weeks in between diagnosis and death. 

Donation is support of Nick Aquilino's film can be made at the film's Indiegogo page. Trailer below:

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