Thursday, July 23, 2009

Filmmakers aim to put AIDS grove on the map

by Matthew S. Bajko
Published 07/23/2009

The National AIDS Memorial Grove's 7.5 acres of green space has a long history of being forgotten, abandoned, and overlooked.

Nestled into a gulch on the eastern side of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the grove is easy to miss. It came into being in 1989 when volunteers seeking to honor those who had succumbed to AIDS landed on the idea of turning the park's historic deLaveaga Dell into a sanctuary where they could share their grief and remember loved ones.

City parks officials had long ignored upkeep of the dell, which was overrun by blackberry bushes. A team of landscapers, architects, gardeners, and citizens spent countless hours weeding the area and replanting the land.

But over the last two decades it has remained off most tourists' itineraries.

"It is kind of hidden physically; it is down in this valley. It is also in between two major traffic streets and people are often on their way to the park's museums or Conservatory of Flowers or botanical garden. I can't tell you how many people stumble through here on to somewhere else and say, I never knew this was here," said Ray Goodenough, a gay man who has been the grove's designated gardener for the last two years. "It keeps it intimate and not overrun with people, like a lot of places in the park are. It is like a sanctuary."

In 1996 the grove did gain some prominence when Congress and then-President Bill Clinton designated it a national memorial, one of only two in California. Yet Clinton never visited, nor has any president ever stepped foot in the grove while in office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has visited the grove and was instrumental in seeing it designated a national memorial.

Over time the grove receded once again from the public's view. Except for the yearly World AIDS Day ceremony held at the space each December 1, many people either do not remember the grove exists or have no idea it is meant to be used by the general public.

"There are only 44 national memorials. It is pretty noteworthy," to have one in the Bay Area, said Michael Weiss, a 10-year member of the grove's board of directors. "But the only people who know about it, visit it, and support it are people who are local. In my experience, when people think of a national memorial they think Washington, D.C."

Yet that may soon change. Several years ago Weiss approached Andy Abrahams Wilson, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, about bringing the grove's story to the big screen. Wilson is the founder of Sausalito-based Open Eye Pictures, a nonprofit production company that specializes in educational films.

"It is striking to us how not well known the AIDS grove is outside the Bay Area," said Weiss, who has lost partners and countless friends to the epidemic. "How can a national memorial not be well known? This film will increase tourism to the grove. We can't rely on locals only."

Weiss had seen Wilson's Emmy-nominated HBO special Bubbeh Lee & Me, about a Jewish grandmother and her gay grandson, and five years ago pitched the idea of a grove film to the openly gay movie producer and director. When he first heard from Weiss, Wilson admitted that he, too, was unfamiliar with the memorial.

"I thought the grove was a totem pole, with some incense and eggs, and then I visited it," he recalled. "AIDS was a horror with no respite for the weary. The chaos and carnage were everywhere. It felt like a sacred cathedral; the ghosts were palpable. Our grief grows those wild plants and flowers."

Since then Wilson has been filming in the grove, interviewing its founders, overseers and those people who have spread the ashes of their loved ones inside the dell for the hour-long documentary.

"I sometimes call it a post-AIDS AIDS film. Now that we have gone through the shock and horror of the AIDS epidemic, not that it is over, but how do we deal with our loss? How do we grieve and remember our loss? The AIDS grove allows us to do that. It is a model for how to turn loss into life and grieving into growth," said Wilson.

Wilson recently screened a portion of the film, tentatively titled Forget Me Not, at a fundraiser in San Francisco that raised $20,000 to help finish the project, which is estimated to need another $100,000 in order to complete production. He said part of why the AIDS grove gets overlooked is that many people have "ghettoized" the epidemic as something only akin to the LGBT community.

But as the movie makes clear through interviews with non-LGBT people, the epidemic has impacted countless individuals, both gay and straight alike, who have lost loved ones to AIDS.

"Grief and death is universal. It helps us make connections with others," explained Wilson, who lived in San Francisco in the early 1990s and lost many friends to the epidemic. "It is not just a metaphor of nature but the essence of nature, which includes everything that is true about the AIDS epidemic. The film is trying to bring to the public's consciousness and a greater audience the grove and what the grove stands for."

Out author Armistead Maupin, who often goes to the grove's Circle of Friends, where three people he lost to AIDS have their names inscribed into the flagstone, is using his celebrity to help raise the money needed to complete the film. He spoke at the recent fundraiser about how the grove has impacted his life over the years.

"I have never gotten my hands dirty in that beautiful place," said Maupin, who in 1999 accompanied gay English actor Stephen Fry to the grove for a television segment he was filming to be screened in Britain. "What is lovely about the grove is it is such a communal project. It really is the closest thing I have to a chapel in my life."

He urged people to think of the grove as more than just a place for quiet remembrances or solemn memorials.

"Anything you do in there that brings joy to that place is appropriate. It is beautiful; you want to go picnic there," said Maupin. "It allows us to remember those people in a beautiful way that is not morbid."

Wilson, who hopes to have the film finished within a year, called the grove a perfect subject for a documentary.

"The grove really is a repository for stories. Film is one of the best media to tell those stories," he said.

For more information about the film and how to donate funds to the project, visit

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