When Peter Friedman’s friends Tom Joslin and Mark Massi died, he accepted an extraordinary inheritance: 40 hours of videotape documenting the couple’s bout with AIDS. After 15 months of additional filming and editing, Friedman emerged with one of the most wrenching and candid documents on love, commitment and mortality in the age of the epidemic.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Freedom of Expression Award at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, Silverlake Life had its national broadcast premiere on PBS’s POV series on June 15, 1993, and was broadcast the same night in France and Germany. The film drove home the devastation of AIDS to millions of viewers with no direct experience of the epidemic. While looking unflinchingly at death, this day-to-day video diary also makes it clear that life and hope go on. “No one who sees [the film] through to its unexpectedly buoyant final scene will regret the time spent or be unchanged by the experience,” said Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan.
Set in the heart of Los Angeles’ Silverlake neighborhood, the film follows Joslin and Massi through their daily triumphs and sorrows, struggling valiantly to comfort and care for each other as even the simplest activities become excruciatingly difficult. Everyday chores, medical treatments and even a stroll in the park require what Joslin jokingly calls “a brave effort of physical dynamism.”
Joslin, a filmmaker and instructor at the University of Southern California, had turned the camera on himself and his family in the past. Thus Friedman, his former student, was not surprised that a super VHS camcorder had become an observant fixture in the Joslin/Massi household.
“Making a film about Mark’s illness was a perfectly natural thing for Tom to do because as an artist, his way of dealing with just about anything was to make a film about it,” said Friedman. “When Tom became sick himself, he incorporated that into the film.” As each partner’s health waned, the other picked up the baton, in what The Advocate called “a relay race between death and art.”
After Joslin died, Friedman flew to Los Angeles to begin reviewing the footage with Massi who was alone to deal with his own worsening condition. Though committed to helping complete the film, Massi was unable to bring himself to watch. Instead, he sat nearby, filling Friedman in on the details. Massi died months later.
“It’s a first-person diary made by someone who wasn’t around to finish it,” explained Friedman. “And absence is really part of what the film is about. For me, that absence symbolizes the absence of people everywhere who aren’t where they should be, because of the devastation AIDS has brought to this country and to the world.”
Silverlake Life was named “One of the 10 Best Films of the Year” by The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Boston Globe, and “One of the Best Films of the Decade” by Utne Reader and The Village Voice. The film is one of 15 films in the POV 20th Anniversary Collection, a DVD set produced in partnership with Docurama and available at http://amdoc.org/store and www.docurama.com.