The Weight and Texture of Memory

March 26, 2014   |   posted in Filmmakers

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It’s an iconic image for many: an enormous quilt spread out across the Washington Mall, seemingly endless, in memorial to everyone who had been lost to the AIDS epidemic, which Nadine Licostie calls “the most devastating pandemic in human history.” That epidemic was still new in 1987, when the NAMES Project Foundation AIDS Memorial Quilt made its first historic appearance. Hysteria and misinformation still ran riot; many funeral homes refused to handle HIV-positive remains and a memorial panel was the closest thing to a funeral service that many victims received.

After 1996, the quilt wasn’t displayed on the Mall again until the Smithsonian Institution organized its return for its 25th anniversary in 2012. When Licostie joined the team to help coordinate the exhibition, she immediately realized that a once-in-a-lifetime documentarian opportunity was unfolding. “We had to begin filming right away,” she says. Ultimately, this resulted in “The Last One,” a film that examines the Quilt’s inception, its rise to prominence, and its envisioned ultimate conclusion.

Twenty-five years after the Memorial Quilt first appeared in Washington, both it, and the devastating epidemic it represents, have receded in many memories. For Licostie, who specializes in documentaries about social justice issues, this was a chance to help revive both those memories and public awareness of the devastating toll that the HIV virus still takes.

Licostie suspects that most people will be surprised to realize that AIDS is still a major threat in the U.S., with 50,000 new infections per year. “For many people,” she points out, “HIV/AIDS is happening somewhere else, but the reality is that it is happening everywhere.”

Just as most people underestimate the current relevance of the Quilt, they may not be aware of how much stigma and discrimination remains attached to AIDS victims. Many remain under the impression that contracting AIDS is a sign of moral weakness and poor choices. “Ironically,” Licostie observes, “HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. We all suffer from the effects of this disease.”

The Quilt, however, remains one of the bright and vibrant aspects of what might otherwise seem like an unrelentingly bleak story. Through it, the film “honors all the people we’ve lost to HIV/AIDS and also all of the people that fought for those that were suffering. The public outcry broke through so many barriers and we became a better nation and a better world because of it.”

That legacy is something that she hopes audiences will come away with a better understanding of, even as they also realize how much work is left to be done, and how public awareness is still crucial to defeating AIDS completely. The story, she says, is woven into every aspect of our contemporary lives.

“This film gave me the chance to look at an issue that had many intersections: politics, media, health policy, social justice. All of it is there stitched into fabric.”

Lara Klaber

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Related Screenings:
03/26/14 @ 6:15 PM – The Last One
03/27/14 @ 12:15 PM – The Last One

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