Ed Wolf’s "We Were Here" Diary, Part Two

Published 08, Nov, 2012

Ed Wolf went to Kiev in the Ukraine, a country with a history of repressive attitudes towards gay, lesbians and people with HIV, to speak at a screening of "We Were Here." Here's part two of the record he kept..

Ed Wolf’s

You can read Part One of Ed's story here

Monday morning, October 22nd

The grey mist of the last two days here in Kiev disappears and the sun shines bright. The screening of “We Were Here” isn’t til tomorrow night; I have most of the day free and decide to take a city bus tour. Everywhere posters announce that Marilyn Manson, Seal, and the next Twilight movie are ‘Coming Soon.’ The tour guide describes the great battle of Kiev in 1941, how when the city fell, 600,000 soldiers were marched out, most never to return. There was a large Jewish neighborhood here then as well, 200,000 inhabitants. When the Nazis left two years later, 125,000 had been shot and killed. My spirits start to sink, feeling that the bus tour may not have been the best thing to do today. I find myself thinking of the screening tomorrow, worrying about whether the homophobic journalist from yesterday will be there. I reflect too on the eloquence and courage of the queer speakers on yesterday’s panel, how committed they are to fight the oppression they experience in their own country, how determined to stand up against the pending legislation that will make any positive images of gay people illegal. 

The tour ends where it began, at the Film Festival headquarters. I’m supposed to meet with the people who are sponsoring tomorrow’s screening of “We Were Here.” As I wait for the taxi to take me to their office, I see the man who sat next to me on yesterday’s panel. I call him over and ask about the journalist who was so disruptive. He says he’s one of Kiev’s most influential film critics, is a bright and educated man and, for some reason, when the issue of gay rights comes up, he goes ‘crazy.’ I ask him if he thinks this critic will be at tomorrow’s screening and he says it’s possible. My taxi arrives and I’m taken to the offices of FULCRUM, a social service organization that serves Ukranian gay men. I meet the executive director, a young man named Bogdan, and three of his colleagues. There’s also a wonderful woman who will provide translation for our meeting today. The translator takes me on a tour of the offices where I see many beautiful paintings of gay men leaning against the walls. She tells me that the artist is afraid to keep them where he lives and has donated them to the agency. She says they're unsure if they will be able to display them or not. 

We all sit down and talk about tomorrow’s screening. (The interpreter translates the following discussion.) They’ve decided to sponsor “We Were Here” and bring me to Kiev based only on what they’ve been able to find in print about the film. None of them have seen it, or read or speak English. I can hardly believe it and am incredibly moved by their trust in the film and in me. They tell me the situation for Ukranian MSMs (men who have sex with men) is very dire and even moreso for those who are HIV+. The stigma against gays is immense and when someone becomes infected, many in the gay community turn away from them as well. They then become isolated, some afraid to seek treatment, some dying alone. (I am crying as I write this to you in my hotel room because I could not do so in front of them.) They have planned a three-hour event before the screening and I am their guest speaker. They have invited HIV+ men from all over Ukraine along with a number of medical providers. They have bought everyone tickets to see the film and have paid for their travel to Kiev, some travelling long distances. They’re all coming to see “We Were Here,” and discover how San Franciscans rose up to take care of their own in a difficult and terrifying time. 

We meet for several hours and together create an agenda for the meeting tomorrow. They want me to talk about the early days of the epidemic, how we San Franciscans found ways to work together and eventually overcome some of the obstacles for caring for those who were ill, connecting those who were isolated, protecting those who were uninfected, and creating bridges to the larger community. They’re not sure if what we did in the US will work in Ukraine. One of the men at the table lamented their lack of community and described how stigma keeps gay men isolated from one another. The government will not allow gay parades or other events that could bring gay people together. I ask about the bars, the saunas; is there some way to get support from businesses where gay men gather. But the lack of compassion, both by the establishment and within gay culture itself, seems insurmountable. A sense of helplessness comes into the room and I reassure them that the most important step has already happened; the four of them are there, sitting at the table together, trying to find ways to solve their problems. There have to be others out there, ready and willing to join them in their efforts. The challenge is going to be finding them. 

It gets late and we’re all tired. The interpreter is exhausted and tomorrow is going to be a huge day for all of us. As we draw the meeting to a close, I remember to ask them where they get their funding. They tell me the Elton John AIDS Foundation. (At that moment I vow to never roll my eyes again when hearing “A Candle in the Wind.”) I gather up my things and head to the lobby. They call a taxi and as we wait, I tell them how proud and honored I am to be here with them, thank them for giving me the opportunity to help them however I can. The taxi arrives and as I prepare to leave, they hold their hands out to shake mine. I hug them all, closely, more, perhaps, for myself than them. They walk me out to the taxi and say good night. The driver is an older man and we sit in the traffic together, neither speaking the other’s language. The reason why I’ve come to Kiev has become so clear to me in these last few hours and I become overwhelmed with the situation here and the hopes these people have that tomorrow’s meeting and the screening of the film will somehow make a difference. I so want it to be so and I start to cry. The driver doesn’t know what to do, so we drive silently back to the hotel, his eyes on the road, me crying into a United Airlines napkin. Please send us all good thoughts tomorrow. Good night! 

Tuesday morning, October 23rd

The day of the screening arrives. Kiev is cold and gray. I’ve tossed and turned all night, restless, thinking about today and hoping that all goes well. I eat breakfast with two men from Warsaw Poland, tell them about the repressive law that may soon be passed here and about the awful homophobic journalist from earlier this week. They tell me they’ll come to the screening tonight to see what happens. As I get ready in my room, I try to think of something to use as a mantra today, something that is greater than fear, repression, or hopelessness. As I’m tying my shoe, this quote from Margaret Mead comes to me: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” These are the words I will hold close today. I look in the mirror before heading downstairs. I look a bit tired, but I’m ready. 

I arrive at the Film Festival Headquarters and participate in the  ‘Sunny Bunny’ (queer film program) press conference. I’m relieved to see that the rude journalist is not present. I provide a brief synopsis of the film when asked, talk about the importance of maintaining queer visibility, especially in Ukraine’s fight against AIDS. I point out the catastrophic numbers of people living with HIV here, over 450,000 in Ukraine compared to 1.4 million in all of the U.S. During the press conference, however, I am acutely aware that on the other side of town, the community HIV event that I’m supposed to be speaking at has already begun. I slip out of the conference when it’s polite to do so. One of the men I met yesterday has arranged a cab and we crawl through terribly congested traffic and finally arrive at the hotel where the event is taking place. He says the meeting’s been in progress for about an hour and leads me into a large room. A man is speaking about the importance of finding straight family members of HIV positive Ukranians to help support AIDS efforts nationwide. When I look around the room, I see many gay men, some obviously with HIV/AIDS, and lesbians, and am suddenly very much at home. 

I take a seat and Bogand, the director of FULCRUM, a Ukranian social service organization that serves gay men, introduces me. I describe how the film we’ll all be seeing together tonight will tell the story of how San Francisco responded so compassionately at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

Someone asks why the documentary was made and I relate David’s story of a younger partner suggesting the idea to him. I explain how so many gay men of my generation are dead and gone, how important it was to capture our stories and memories from that time. Someone describes the rural region where they come from, how difficult it is to organize there. I describe the recent experience that David and Eileen and I had at a screening in Oklahoma of "We Were Here", how gay men at the university found each other there, started a radio show, create events celebrating coming out, drawing attention to issues like bullying and HIV. Many questions are asked and I respond as best I can. Mostly, I find as many ways as possible to reflect back to them the importance of both queer and HIV visibility, how powerful it is for me to come into this room and see them all here at the table together, sharing their concerns and strategies. I tell them I will remember their courage, admire their commitment to the causes they hold so dear. I tell them I will take their stories home with me and share them (with all of you!). Suddenly the event is over, and we take a dinner break before reconvening at the theatre for the screening. 

The event organizers take me out to dinner. (I order Chicken Kiev, of course. It’s quite good!) Everyone’s very happy with the turnout for the meeting today. They so appreciate my repeated emphasis on gays and lesbians finding ways to work together to remain visible and united, even in such oppressive times as they are living in. They say there is great anticipation for the film tonight and remind me that many have traveled to Kiev from outlying regions. The wonderful woman who has been doing all the translation for me these past few days turns out to be Bogand’s mother. She is as dedicated to the causes of gay rights and HIV support services as her son. It’s all so incredibly moving I can hardly eat. When I first received my invitation to the Festival I was told that there would be an “International Drinking Party.” Everyone attending the Festival was asked to bring a bottle of their ‘Favorite National Drink.’ I brought a big bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey in my luggage, but was so jet-lagged I missed the party. At the dinner table, I pulled the bottle out of my backpack and presented it to the organizing team. I said the next time they’re feeling hopeless or frustrated in their efforts, to take a drink from this special bottle. I told them it was a magical elixir from my country, guaranteed to help them through difficult times. I could see in their eyes that they were moved by the sincerity of my gift. 

We all arrive at the theatre. The lobby is full. There’s a camera crew; I do a quick interview. There’s much excitement. Some of the people who were at the first panel I participated in are there and laughingly recall the rude journalist. We look around the lobby, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Hallelujah! The screening is supposed to begin at 7:30, but at 7:45 the doors to the theatre are still not open. 8:00 comes and goes. One of the festival organizers, Victoria, comes to find me, explains that they are having some technical difficulty getting the film to operate, but they’ve almost got it working. I can hear the sound of my own voice coming from behind the closed doors of the theatre and am relieved. She explains that this cinema is the oldest in Kiev, built in 1931, and there’s a small problem with the projection equipment. 8:15 comes and goes. I’m getting worried. The audience is restless. 8:30 . . . and suddenly the doors open and we all go inside. The woman from the festival, Victoria, welcomes the audience and then Bogand introduces me. I get up, thank them for coming, and then appreciate that they had to wait. I say, “We’ve all just had an opportunity to practice one of the most important skills necessary for social change . . . patience.” There’s much laughter and applause and then a voice is heard from the back of the theatre. Everyone gets up and starts to leave. “What is it?” I ask Victoria. “There’s a problem with the copy of the film we have. I’m so sorry Ed . . . there will be no screening tonight.” 

As the last of the audience leaves, I stand with Bogdan and his mom, other staff members from FULCRUM, and Victoria. Everyone is stunned. There’s an awkward silence. Bogdan and his team have worked so hard to organize the event today, bringing so many people from outlying areas Kiev . . . and now this! Victoria is obviously shaken. She says she feels so guilty and is terribly sorry. I tell them that I am disappointed, yes, of course, but I’m not angry. There is no blame. Victoria says they’ll contact David Weissman, get another copy, be sure to screen it before the festival is over. I can sense they’re trying to make me feel better and I work hard to tell them that I’m fine, really. I say that the most important part of the last 4 days for me is that I was able to come to Kiev and meet them all. I’ve seen how hard the Festival organizers work to keep queer films as part of their program. And that I am so profoundly moved by the work the agency is doing for the rights of gay men and those living with HIV in Ukraine. “It’s you, the people I’ve met, that have made my experience here so wonderful.” It’s late now, and everyone’s exhausted. I say goodbye to each of the FULCRUM staff. Bogdan’s mother gives me a big hug. Bogdan has told me at dinner that there will be an HIV conference here next fall and he’ll have me return, so I assure her that we will meet again. After they leave I stand in the lobby with Victoria, waiting for my cab. She’s tearful and I reassure her again that I am fine. And as I’m driven back to the hotel for the last time, I’m aware that I REALLY AM fine. People here will see “We Were Here,” in their own time, in their own way. My experience in Kiev has been spectacular and the people all so inspiring. I know I will return. We may not have been able to watch “We Were Here” as a group, but it definitely has achieved something else, something greater . . . it has brought us all together. 

Wednesday morning, October 24th

I’m in my hotel room, packing, getting ready to go down to the lobby and take the shuttle to the airport. I’ve received an e-mail during the night, stating there will probably be a screening of “We Were Here” today after all. I’ve check with the airlines, but it’s impossible to reschedule my flight now . . . I leave in 3 hours. I have to let go, and so I do. After everything that’s occurred in the past 4 days, I think I can’t possibly be surprised by anything else. But just now, through a window I opened earlier this morning, a little bird has flown into my  room. It’s small, black and brown and grey, but with a bright green streak on it’s chest. It’s sitting on my suitcase right now, looking at me. I know it sounds unbelievable, but there it is. I get up slowly, speak quietly to it, try to get it to fly back out the window. It flies further into the room instead. I go to the balcony door, open it wide, and sit back down. Slowly it sticks its head out from under the bed, looks at me, and then hops across the rug and out the door. I stand and watch it on the balcony railing. It chirps at me and then flies out across the river. I don’t know what to make of this final encounter, but it feels like a good omen to me. I gather up my things and head to the lobby. I’ll be home tonight, in my own bed. Thank you dear friends, for all your kind words and good thoughts. They’ve meant a lot to me.