The Grove: AIDS and the Politics of Remembrance

Grove DVD001Film is the perfect medium to capture the beauty and peace of the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This documentary, in particular, captures the memorial across the seasons, such as they are in San Francisco:  spring, summer, rain, swirling fog. There’s a real sense that this is a living, breathing, growing landscape.

For all that, the AIDS Grove is an artificial landscape, carved out of sand and neglect in the midst of an extremely busy park. The people who do the work of gardening, maintenance, and building the memorial features came to be at odds (fortuitously for the filmmaker) over just what this landscape remembers.

Originally the Grove was envisioned as a peaceful place where people who felt ostracized from traditional holy ground could hold memorial gatherings and grieve without stigma for the tens of thousands who’ve died of AIDS and have no other monument. As the worst of the epidemic seems to be over and AIDS directly impacts fewer lives each year, the Grove’s board of directors wonders, “Is this memorial for people who suffered the losses firsthand or for future generations?”

A false comparison is made to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, visited by two million people each year. For one thing (which the film neglects to note), that Memorial stands between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It’s not like people go out of their way to see the Vietnam Memorial. For another, fewer than 50,000 American soldiers died during the Vietnam War, while 636,000-and-counting have died of AIDS in the US. The Vietnam War ended; AIDS continues to ravage the world. Apples and oranges.

The documentary records the impassioned debate between the factions who see the Grove as a healing space and those (mostly not directly affected by the plague) who feel the Grove isn’t shocking enough to force untouched visitors to feel how devastating the plague was.  The schism appears generational.

Without comment, the movie captures the contest to design a new memorial element as a way to confront people and cause controversy. Tellingly, while emphasis was placed on finding a memorial design that would shock the future, the winning design had its own obsolescence planned in. If built, the stark charred-wood “Living Memorial” would have had seeds planted inside its planks so that, in time, nature would have reclaimed and obscured it. No one in the film notes the irony that, $6 million and a decade later, the Grove would return to being a garden once more.

The film spends too much time interviewing tourists who have gotten lost in Golden Gate Park seeking the Japanese Tea Garden. If the point is that the Grove is not well known, I suspect the solution is better advertising. It seems to me that the Grove faces the same problem that more traditional cemeteries face: how do you draw people who are not connected to the dead through your gates?

Finally, at the end, the film shows a volunteer sobbing because his team found a marble urn in the Grove when they were weeding. A man is shown scattering ashes. Memorial services are held. I’m not sure if this is meant as counterpoint to the aborted design contest, but it demonstrates that the National AIDS Memorial Grove does serve a real and necessary purpose. Perhaps it’s more personal in scope than “national” implies — and some on the board of directors are comfortable with that, but until the plague has ended, there continues to be a need for a place to remember and grieve.

The film has shown several times on PBS. It’s worth seeking out. It will give you much food for thought.

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