In making the film Wojnarowicz, director Chirs McKim mostly uses found footage, the kind of home movies that his subject shot and left behind. Then he contextualizes it with narration from people who knew the artist like Fran Liebowitz. They all tell the story of people flocking to New York during the 1970s.
These narrators stay within the aural field and McKim doesn’t let us see these people now. Instead of tackling its subject in the academic sense, the film immerses us into those decades with its visuals. It’s perfect for viewers who are nostalgic towards the late 20th century artistic queer hedonism.
These narrators have a boomer scrappiness to them. Wojnarowicz’ friends talk about the lack of galleries in the Lower East Side where the artist got his first break. Another reminisced about her first gallery, which was the three walls in her her toilet in what was then an undesirable neighborhood.
Eventually, Wojnarowicz switches from these oral interviews to make way for Wojnarowicz himself. And the film justifies its existence with that incendiary voice. One that captured the angst of a young man who is realizing that he is a second class citizen in a country where everyone is presumably equal. Where, in reality, personal problems have institutional roots.
The film makes him out to be one voice among man. This is another element that makes it a competent example of the ‘AIDS art documentary’ subgenre. The sense of community really comes out in these interviews, as Liebowitz remembers having to take Wojnarowicz to the doctor when he gets sick.
Admittedly, the vibe in the first half feels too familiar, with his family drama pushing him eventually into the Lower East End scene. It also depicts the secen and his art in the most serious way. But what takes this apart from the subgenre is dropping the artist’s diagnosis in the middle of the film instead of making it a part of the third act. It gives the film the same urgency as what Wojnarowicz might have felt.
Wojnarowicz presence becomes more prominent in this half of the movie. The home answering machine tapes, where he left his voice, is a boon here, since it lets viewers hear his method. Good documentaries about artists are less about their pain and more about the work they do to express it.
That work transcends Wojnarowicz and New York, as the film eventually addresses how he fought both through his art and through the courts. He legally challenged groups who decontextualized his work so that he could lose funding. It’s these small victories that makes me wish I knew more about this great man.
One last thing about Wojnarowicz is that most movies like this drop its lede too quickly. The first scene shows him waiting to see how the news will cover his funding issues. And that fight against institutions are more important to the film than other things. For example, showing how he might have influenced MIA or how he’s the jacket guy. Or how U2 used one of his pictures as their album cover. This doc has its priorities in the right place.
Find out more about Wojnarowicz’ release at https://www.kinolorber.com.