This year at the BFI Flare film festival I had the absolute honour to learn about the legend that is Connie Norman. I interviewed director Dante Alencastre to learn more about the film; AIDs Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman.
Can you tell us a little bit about what your movie is about?
The documentary is about, the self-appointed “AIDS DIVA” and ACT UP/LA spokesperson in early 90’s Los Angeles, Connie Norman, who stood proudly in her multiple, fluid and evolving LGBTQ identities. Both beloved and confrontational, Connie’s soulful and salty rantings and intersectional politics were heard widely through her newspaper column, and pioneering radio and cable TV talk shows. Serving as a bridge in both gender and politics, and modelling “wokeness” in an early era of crisis, Connie’s piercing and compassionate voice urges us again into action, to fully engage with our lives and our world.
Who is the film for? Who do you hope it reaches?
The film is for everyone who wants to act up and fight back to make their world a better one that the one we have right now. We are deeply divided, and the film is a blueprint of one individuals’ journey into changing the status quo, work hard, and makes a difference in times of crisis. I also hope it gives them pause, reflection, and solace. We are still in the middle of a pandemic; lives have been changed in significant and painful ways. We are still divided. But there is a lot we can do together to change the status quo intentionally and mindfully. Connie teaches that one voice can move mountains, in times of crises and in times of peace. We must continue to be vigilant, take to the streets, and act up.
What message do you want audiences to receive from watching Connie Norman’s story?
The message of empathy, compassion, and fight. Connie was a bridge builder. She believed in humanity through all her challenges, she wanted to build a path for the next generation to have better opportunities and a better life than she had.
At the end of her days, her mind was firmly set on passing the baton and she did but teaching her mentee, Valerie Spencer, who I interviewed in the film, how to navigate the institutions that held the power over AIDS/HIV treatment and care.
Why was it so important to make AIDS Diva : The Legend of Connie Norman now?
Connie’s story is vital for the empowerment of our youth. Seeing yourself represented on screen can possibly be lifesaving, due to this virtual platform I trust that folks in far flung places will get to watch one of our stories and feels less alone. Politically we are not where we should be; I am thinking about our American anti-trans bills and even here in the UK with the lack of support to ban conversion therapy. There is still loads of work to do, and us storytellers have more relevant, resonant, and disruptive tales to tell.
Did the political landscape of America over the past few years affect your approach to making the film in any way?
It taught me to be patient, flexible, innovative, and rewired my brain about the way stories can be created and still be compelling and impactful. When I saw thousands of people chanting alongside Black Lives Matter during the pandemic and chanting the same chants that our community did during the 80s and 90s, it was the fuel that kept our team going during production. To never forget where I came from and to start mentoring young filmmakers.
In the movie we see Connie Norman’s battle as an activist during an important moment in LGBTQ+ history, how important is to make sure that history is seen on screen?
Our collective consciousness needs these stories, as a community we need to know our history, and whose shoulders we stand on. Our community lived through the AIDS pandemic, we were demonized, politically used as pawns, neglected and rejected by our families. One bright spot was that it brought our community together, we tended for our sick and took to the streets like Connie did.
Social movements for progressive change are linked together, we build upon the resistance and resilience of our brothers, sisters and non-binary folks that came before us.
What were the challenges making the movie?
Funding is always the primary challenge, especially because the way I create is to start filming and hope that the inherent importance of the project I am making will garner support, communal and financial.
Doing post-production, editing, coloring, sound mixing, during the lockdown was a challenging learning curve. Learning all the new technology and being patient with glitches and not very precise directions. It’s truly a miracle to have a film to show.
What is your favourite moment in the movie?
Any moment where we watch Connie in archival footage, I believed I got to know frame by frame. Our team wanted to include as many facets of her personality as we could. We have a treasure trove of old VHS, Hi8 and Super 8 material that were key to bring her spirit back.
What you favourite memory of making the film?
Meeting Connie’s close friends, peers, and ACT UP/LA cohorts. They remember her so vividly. She really left a mark on their lives like no other. She was for most the first trans individual they had met, and Connie made sure they were schooled on her gender journey. Most remember her wit, her fearlessness, and her fabulousness.
Researching archival photos and newspaper clipping with my co-producer John Johnston. Everyday on the production was a wonder.
What do you think Connie would think of LGBTQ+ activism now? Do you think there are any in particular she would have stood arm in arm protesting with?
She would support many causes because she was intentionally intersectional. On top of her to do list, would be to fight for trans youth, to help defeat the initiatives that are harmful to their very existence. She was a street fighter so she would be into marching with Trans Black Lives Matter, Stop anti-Asian hate, Equality act, Global trans rights, ERA, so many causes, but she would make time.
Also, she would keep fighting to find a cure for AIDS, stop stigmatization of HIV survivors and universal health care.
What’s the one thing we should all learn from Connie?
To be vigilant, resilient, and that change takes work. She was all about putting in the work. Her legacy lives on in every trans, gender non-conforming, two spirit, non-binary youth who gets to be themselves openly and proudly.