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Filmmaker Takes Aim at Cultural Taboos : LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL: "Home, Place and Memory" A city-wide arts fest. : Movies: Marlon T. Riggs, the controversial maker of 'Tongues Untied,' returns with 'No Regret,' about five black gay men who are HIV-positive.

September 01, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1989 a young filmmaker named Marlon T. Riggs made a stunning and original 55-minute video called "Tongues Untied," a call for liberation that draws from the poetry of Essex Hemphill and others. It utilizes dance, tableaux, personal narrative and documentary footage to create a stylized, sensual and impassioned stream-of-consciousness celebration of love between black men. It won awards--and drew a ferocious reaction from the foes of the National Endowment for the Arts, since the NEA had indirectly helped fund the film in 1988 via a $5,000 grant to Riggs through a regional fellowship program.

Riggs, now 36, went on to make "Color Adjustment," a provocative survey of how blacks have been portrayed on TV over the decades, and, most recently, "No Regret" ("Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"), a 38-minute documentary on five black gay men who have tested HIV-positive. It has been shown at various film festivals.

The Los Angeles Festival will present "Tongues Untied" tonight at 7:30 in the Cary Grant Theater at Sony Pictures Studio in Culver City and "No Regret" Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the Museum of Tolerance.

Even though "No Regret" is essentially an interview film, Riggs brings to it the same kind of creativity that characterized "Tongues Untied." As the five men of "No Regret" speak to the camera, Riggs fills in the background with snapshots from their lives and occasionally slogans pertaining to their condition. The entire thrust of the film is to assert that it is as important to be out about one's HIV status as it is about sexual orientation. "No Regret" is a production of the New York-based Fear of Disclosure Project, which is dedicated to producing videos and short films that deal with the problems of disclosing HIV status and that are distributed to AIDS groups and community-based organizations.

"I just wanted to preserve the images of these men because they have been instrumental in the fight against AIDS, especially in the black community," said Riggs in a phone interview from Berkeley, where he teaches documentary filmmaking at the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism. "I also wanted to get a sense of the differences within the black gay community--differences in age, religion, attitudes.

"I didn't want to present the kind of AIDS video in which everyone has arrived at a state of super-consciousness--at ease with dying and disease. I wanted to show that all of us who are afflicted have to struggle from day to day. I wanted to deal with the issue of disclosure--who to disclose to and when. I wanted to get away from the usual AIDS activist documentary on how we mobilize the community and instead focus on how we mobilize our internal psyches to battle this disease, which often gets neglected. And as African-American men they have to bear the stigma of racism: AIDS can't simply be the be-all of their lives--they have to deal with the stress that attends being black in America--and with the lack of support from the gay community as a whole."

As for the role of the black churches in reaching out to gays, Riggs said, "I'd like to believe it's getting better, but nobody is going around doing a survey on this. Too many in the churches are still homophobic, too many still say that AIDS is a just desert--even as they see their own congregations diminish."

The PBS series "POV" ("Point of View"), which aired "Tongues Untied" in 1991 in 29 of the 50 largest TV markets, has turned down "No Regret" although, like the earlier film, it contains no erotic sequences but does have some blunt language.

"Last year we received 500 submissions for 10 slots--it's extremely competitive," said "POV" producer Ellen Schneider, who describes the program as "a showcase for nonfiction film that frequently expresses a strong point of view or a personal perspective rarely heard in mainstream media."

"We are admirers of Marlon Riggs' work. We aired 'Tongues Untied' and 'Color Adjustment,' which opened last year's season. 'No Regret' didn't make it."

While Fear of Disclosure Project's Jonathan Lee is submitting "No Regret" to other PBS shows, Riggs is primarily concerned that it be shown at "organizations that serve black gays."

Riggs, who describes his own health as "up and down," says he's working on yet another project, a feature-length documentary, "Black Is . . . Black Ain't."

"It explores how black Americans have defined blackness over the past 100 years to the present from the perspective of religion, skin color, hairstyles, politics, gender, sexuality and physical appearance," he said.

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