“Can you imagine what it’s like to have all of your friends die?” The first words spoken in The Grove recall the tremendous and ongoing effects of AIDS. Asked over a somber piano soundtrack and close-up images of rain falling onto rich green leaves and grass, they also remind you of how crucial such words have been in the long struggle against the disease. For too long, AIDS was repressed, unspoken by authorities, unacknowledged by official bodies, and devastatingly underrepresented in all manner of public forums.
Premiering on PBS on 1 December, World AIDS Day and 30th anniversary of the first AIDS cases in the US, The Grove focuses on words — stories and memories — as these help individuals see themselves as communities, to share experiences. The film opens with personal stories, of Stephen Marcus, recalled by his wife Clare Lopez Marcos (when they met, she was an architect and he was her student: “He looked a bit like pictures of Jesus,” she says) and his partner of seven years, Jack Porter, who first appears as he’s driving across the Golden Gate Bridge en route to the National AIDS Memorial Grove, the site that he and other friends of Stephen conceived in 1988, after Stephen had died.
The Grove, located in Golden Gate Park, is fundamentally serene, lush and lovely, with birds chirping and sunlight filtering through the tree branches overhead. As Jack gathers cards and notes left at the site, sweeping the stones that are inscribed with names, he articulates the Grove’s intention and effects: “I guess that’s the theme is remembrance. And of course, when you can remember and still talk about it, leave things, that’s part of the healing process. I know myself, it gets easier all the time.” The camera zooms close to his face, suggesting that the process is still not “easy.”
As Andy Abrahams Wilson and Tom Shepard’s documentary shows, the Grove accommodates perpetual shifts in feeling, an uneven and sort of healing. It is ever changing with time, but also always the same, a respite and, as Jack here explains, an “area just to honor those that have passed away and remember them in a nice quiet, natural setting.” The camera pulls out from a close-up on his face to a wide shot showing him and his listeners, a trio of teenage girls. “We’re glad you’re here,” he says, and they smile. “Thank you,” they say, in unison.
The idea of unity comes up again and again in The Grove. While it notes in news footage and photos the early days of AIDS, when Ronald Reagan wouldn’t acknowledge the disease, when news media termed it “the gay disease,” and when it seemed unstoppable and inexplicable. “It is a like a plague,” says Cleve Jones, founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in an archival interview with Mike Wallace. “A lot of people don’t want to use that word, but I’m 31 years old and I’ve watched a great many of my friends die.”
This dire history is recalled as well in the film’s opening epigraph, which notes that AIDS has taken more lives in the US than all wars combined since 1900. The desolation and the waste are pictured here in a typical way, newspaper obituaries layered and dissolving into each other. The early center — of the virus and the costs — was San Francisco. “It was like a city under siege,” says Stephen’s friend, Alice Russell-Shapiro. “Gay men were dying by the dozens in San Francisco.” Another friend of Stephen’s, Isabel Wade, says, “I remember him telling me and my heart sank. I just felt as soon as he said it, I just felt it was dangerous for him.”
It was dangerous for Stephen and for too many others as well. Nancy Pelosi remembers first coming to Congress in 1987. Asked whether she wanted to speak on her first day, she admits that most often, incoming Congress members did not “make remarks,” even when they were invited to do so. She, however, did. “I was totally unprepared,” she says, “So I just thought of the first thing, which was why I had come to Congress, and that was, ‘I’m here to fight against AIDS.'” Her words resonate now, as she describes the toll on her constituents. Imagine, she asks her fellows, if this was happening in your district. Years later, she was able to obtain for the Grove the status of a national memorial (one of only 44 in the US).
Remembering is the primary function of any memorial. Accommodating the wishes and needs of all who might use it is almost impossible. Today, the Grove remains crucial for many visitors and caretakers, even as the effects of AIDS now are better controlled than during the ’80s and might even be forgotten by some who feel unaffected. Thom Weyand, a Grove Board Member, calls the Grove “a place I go when I don’t want to see other people,” pointing to the difficulties he feels to this day as a person living with AIDS, owing in large part to the “bias in this country against people with AIDS.” He underlines, that “8,000 people a day die in this world from AIDS.” It’s a toll that yet remains too unknown, too unspoken, and too invisible. And so, he says, the Grove, as a memorial, needs “to address [the toll] in some way.”
The film tracks one solution, another memorial at the Grove that will appeal to visitors from around the nation and the world. Some Board members (but certainly not all) agree to a competition for this design, an event to bring awareness to the site and the reason it exists, with an eye toward creating the same sort of publicity as the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial (the film does not detail that Maya Lin’s design for that memorial also generated controversy, even as it is now revered). The winning architects, Janette Kim and Chloe Town, present their concept, “intended to be a bit disruptive.” This even as some Board members reject the very idea of a memorial that is not the Grove, per se. Jack, for example, asserts his resistance to the design.
Still, the film tracks the struggles by Jack and others not only to live with their losses, but also to speak to multiple individuals. Initially understood as a means to share voices and stories, the Grove has changed shape and evolved to accommodate new possibilities. The future, the film suggests, will be informed by the past, but its forms will be transformed.