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“Wojnarowicz” is a powerful portrait of an artist who took no prisoners

Wojnarowicz

Chris McKim’s documentary about the fiery artist turned AIDS activist is a stirring tribute to voices that were silenced too soon.

New York City in the 1980s was shaken to social rubble as the “epicenter” of the AIDS epidemic. Multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz was one such voice among the quaking moans of societal collapse. Director Chris McKim’s new documentary, Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker, offers an in-depth look at the raging flame that made the artist such a potent critic of his times.

Using a dazzling display of archival materials, significantly from Wojnarowicz’s huge collection of “tape journals,” McKim and fellow World of Wonder producers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey piece together the artist’s journey largely in his own words. We hear his storries about a traumatic childhood, being a sex worker, the discovery of himself as an artist, his AIDS diagnosis, and problems with fame all in his characteristically keen and morose drone. 

As we follow Wojnarowicz’s “rise” within the East Village art scene, friends and artists fill in more of the context. McKim does an excellent job letting 80s and 90s East Village reveal itself though the images, home videos, and interviews, connected together by voicemails left on Wojnarowicz’s machine. It’s easy to talk about art movements as a grand known idea, but McKim reminds us that these movements are made up of people calling each other, checking on each other, setting appointments to make things happen together. We get a clear sense of the moods and objectives of the artists living there and how they began to respond to Neocon backlash and AIDS silence because McKim and his team have done their research. 

Wojnarowicz…offers an in-depth look at the raging flame that made the artist such a potent critic of his times.

Clearly McKim and friends, like Fran Leibowitz, are still around to speak about Wojnarowicz, and have a tremendous amount of respect and adoration for him. So large is this affection that it can sometimes over bloat the subject. This is especially obvious when the documentary reflects on Wojnarowicz’s place within the emerging queer consciousness of the American 1970s, 80s, and 90s. 

All too often with biographical documentaries, there is a tendency to make the subject into the typefying voice/body of a movement. McKim’s documentary teeters on asserting that Wojnarowicz was Queerness, that he embodied “the queer experience” of the time(s), especially in the context of the AIDS epidemic. But, like his art reveals, Wojnarowicz’s experience and rage comes from his singular perspective as a gay white man. Queer women, transwomen, and queers of color are largely absent from his art and this movie, yet their experience is vital for understanding Queerness in Regan-era New York.

So while McKim and Wojnarowicz don’t offer as total of a look at the East Village of the late 80s and early 90s as they claim, what we do see is richly textured by primary materials. The archive left behind not just by Wojnarowicz but by all the queers in the East Village has a haunting beauty. McKim embraces their anger and allows their struggle to echo across the decades. Archives are meant to carry on after us, to sustain our echoes, but the hands and voices that made these materials were taken so early. The power of McKim’s documentary is its ability to reanimate those voices of a generation of queers and show the joy, the colors, and the rage that was snuffed out by silence.

Wojnarowicz is now available through Kino Marquee virtual cinemas.

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