Film Review: WOJNAROWICZ: FUCK YOU FAGGOT FUCKER (directed by Chris McKim; World Premiere at DOC NYC)

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by Tony Frankel on November 11, 2020

in Film

RISE OF THE RESISTANCE

I relate to the howling anger of performance- and guerilla street- artist David Wojnarowitcz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch), who died of AIDS on July 22, 1992 at 37. It’s fascinating to notice how pissed off Americans are now, and then — courtesy of Chris McKim’s astounding new collage-like documentary — discover through Wojnarowitcz’s writings, films, art, photography, tape recordings — even voice messages — just how the 70s and 80s were ground zero for our current discontent. There are a few voiceovers by friends such as Fran Lebowitz, but this lament for the dead is a serious reflection for David by David through McKim.

I can pinpoint the genesis of our country’s polarization from the early Reagan years, when David was in his mid-20s. The 60s and 70s gave rise to the liberation explosion of previously marginalized groups, including women, queers, and Latinos. (Blacks, as we are currently painfully aware, have such a horrendous relationship with America that their liberation is still getting off the ground.) Feminism and gay lib were making serious headway the years that David was living as a hustler in NYC. And this most certainly did not fit in with the Reagans, who professed morality and family values instead of proving that our country could actually live by those morals. At one point in the riveting doc, we hear David yelling at his brother, refusing to dine with his aunt unless she explains why she let her alcoholic brother, David’s dad, horribly abuse his kids in an atmosphere of Christianity. David understood that, more and more, religions and the conspiracy theories born from them were becoming excuses for trampling on one’s equal rights (Q-Anon, anyone?).

David was acutely aware of society’s hypocrisies because that was the world he came from in New Jersey. Now, he was living under a President who, instead of dealing with the new homeless explosion, shut down federal mental health facilities. And while drug use, like sex, became both a way to celebrate and squash personal demons (David’s was heroin), Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” was no option (hello, opioid epidemic).

And Reagan’s tenure created a stronghold of Republicans who ensured that white, privileged, straight men would chokehold the very people who made them rich (remember 2008’s banking bozos being bailed out by Bush?). These capitalist corporations created a cacophony of consumption that turned our glorious land into a sea of Costcos, Staples, and Walmarts. The prescient artist knew that unchecked greed and insouciant consumers were a recipe for disaster, creating an atmosphere where America at large began to care more about themselves (“He who dies with the most toys, wins”) than the disenfranchised.

So while Senator Jesse Helms supported the tobacco industry in his native North Carolina, he did his best to keep the NEA from granting money to artists he deemed offensive (David used homoeroticism in his collages); slipped in a bill-rider banning HIV-positive people from entering this country; and tried to put an end to AIDS funding.

Wouldn’t you be pissed if you lived in the epicenter of the AIDS crisis and your President didn’t even mention the word “AIDS” until almost 6000 people had died?

Anger makes strange bedfellows: David was able to channel his anger through art, as did many of his East Village compatriots and artists. The activist was a prolific polymath, using among many other disciplines graffiti, sculptures, and complex works that mixed images, symbols, and words. He made the use of found objects a revelation, going so far as to paint a largely abandoned pier on the Lower East Side, which he shared with other artists. He was also a member of an early punk band, 3 Teens Kill 4 (3TK4), the songs of which make up the soundtrack.

It simply astounds how much you will experience an era through David in this glorious film, brilliantly edited by David Stanke, who should receive an Oscar nod. Wojnarowitcz is destined to be short listed, if not the winner, of next year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

But if you think we’ve come far, consider this: What would David think if a masterly doc was made on his life, but the subtitle Fuck You Faggot Fucker, named after a piece of his art, had asterisks instead of letters? David understood the power of taking words (“faggot fucker”) and symbols (the pink triangle, identifier of gays by Nazis, used for ACT-UP) and owning them as a way to usurp their power. When will we ever learn?

photos ©Estate of David Wojnarowicz.
Courtesy of the Estate and P.P.O.W

Wojnarowitcz
World of Wonder
playing DOC NYC November 11-19, 2020
(includes pre-recorded Q&A with Mr. McKim)
documentary | U.S.A. | 2020 | 105 minutes
Wojnarowitcz’s books available on Amazon
further reading: article in Los Angeles Review of Books

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