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Ashfield filmmaker Mary Patierno’s footage part of documentary nominated for an Oscar

  • Clips from a documentary film made by local filmmaker Mary Patierno in 1999 were used in the documentary "How to Survive a Plague," nominated for an Academy Award. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Clips from a documentary film made by local filmmaker Mary Patierno in 1999 were used in the documentary "How to Survive a Plague," nominated for an Academy Award.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Footage from Mary Patierno's documentary film, "The Most Unknowable Thing," was used in a new documentary which has been nominated for an Academy Award. Patierno's film is about her brother who died from AIDS in 1993.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Footage from Mary Patierno's documentary film, "The Most Unknowable Thing," was used in a new documentary which has been nominated for an Academy Award. Patierno's film is about her brother who died from AIDS in 1993.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Filmmaker Mary Patierno in her Ashfield home. Patierno is working on a film about women involved in AIDS activism around the globe.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Filmmaker Mary Patierno in her Ashfield home. Patierno is working on a film about women involved in AIDS activism around the globe.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mary Patierno edits video for a documentary in her Ashfield home on Thursday, February 21, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Mary Patierno edits video for a documentary in her Ashfield home on Thursday, February 21, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Clips from a documentary film made by local filmmaker Mary Patierno in 1999 were used in the documentary "How to Survive a Plague," nominated for an Academy Award. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Footage from Mary Patierno's documentary film, "The Most Unknowable Thing," was used in a new documentary which has been nominated for an Academy Award. Patierno's film is about her brother who died from AIDS in 1993.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Filmmaker Mary Patierno in her Ashfield home. Patierno is working on a film about women involved in AIDS activism around the globe.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Mary Patierno edits video for a documentary in her Ashfield home on Thursday, February 21, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

ASHFIELD — Twenty years ago Saturday, documentary filmmaker Mary Patierno lost her 34-year-old half-brother, David Miller, to AIDS. She chronicled his last four years of life in a film called “The Most Unknowable Thing.”

The film won best documentary awards at gay and lesbian film festivals in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. when it was released in 1999. Patierno said that while she was pleased with the acclaim, it was far more gratifying to know that her brother’s memory was kept alive every time a viewer watched the film.

Now, two decades after his death, David is back on the big screen. Footage from Patierno’s film was used in a new documentary about AIDS, “How to Survive a Plague,” that was nominated in the best documentary category at the Academy Awards Sunday night.

“I think David would be really happy to be in a film that wins an Academy Award, even if he’s only in it for a few seconds,” Patierno said while sitting at her video editing desk at her Brier Hill Road home. “And it keeps his spirit alive, and I’m really happy for that.”

“How to Survive a Plague,” directed by filmmaker David France, chronicles the work of two activist groups, ACT UP and TAG, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. In the 1980s and 1990s, the activists effectively changed the country’s response to the AIDS crisis by staging massive sit-ins and other non-violent rallies and protests. They pressured the government and its agencies to accelerate the development of life-saving drugs such as AZT and pushed pharmaceutical companies to reduce the initial price of treatment from a staggering $10,000 a year, among other things.

Patierno said she knew France from the years she lived and worked in New York City, and he contacted her to see if he could use footage of Miller from “The Most Unknowable Thing” in his new documentary.

“He wanted images of men who were dying of AIDS to use as transitions between segments,” said Patierno. She said that the four or five clips she sold France include shots of Miller getting a massage and her pushing him in a wheelchair. The clips are not accompanied by any details such as their names or stories, she said. They are just wordless, somber clips of a man living with AIDS in a time before the drugs that could have saved him were available.

“He died a year and a half before the drugs came out, but he would have missed the drugs by a lot more if not for the work of ACT UP and other activists,” she said.

Documenting life and death

Patierno, 53, has been making documentaries since she graduated from the University of Massachsetts with a degree in women’s studies in 1986. She was living in New York City and involved in ACT UP in 1989 when her brother, who was living in Austin, Texas, told her that he and his partner, Carlos, were both HIV positive. “It never occurred to me that he could be HIV positive, I was in denial,” she recalled.

“I told him about how I wanted to make a movie about him living with AIDS, not dying with AIDS,” she said. “But it became about so much more. It ended up being about life and how it changes. Because life just took over.”

The film follows him from his diagnosis in 1989 until his death in 1993. He and Carlos broke up, after which Miller married his female chiropractor, Connie, and the couple was ostracized by her family, Patierno said. In an even more shocking twist, Connie was murdered in the Luby’s Cafeteria massacre in Killeen, Texas in 1991. A deranged man drove his truck into the cafeteria and shot and killed 23 people. Carlos also died in 1991, and David Miller died from the disease on Feb. 23, 1993.

“After Connie’s death, I thought, ‘there’s no film.’ Things were just too crazy, no one would believe it,” Patierno remembered. “But as time went by and my grief subsided, friends encouraged me and I went back and decided to make the film. It was hard because the three protagonists were dead; I had to work with what I had.”

Her grief also made it difficult. “When you’re editing, you try to arrange things to make them have the biggest emotional impact, and that’s hard to do when you’re crying and there are tears all through editing,” she said. “It was incredibly emotionally draining.”

But the finished product, which was also nominated for an Achievement Award by the International Documentary Film Association, captured her brother’s spirit as well as the unpredictable nature of life.

“He fought death to the end. But in the very end, he thought death could be interesting. He said, ‘it’s the most unknowable thing,’ ” she said. “But the film shows that really, life is the most unknowable thing.”

Fighting a plague

Patierno now co-owns a video production business, Reel Communication, and works on documentaries and teaches once a week at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Her next project is working on a documentary about women involved in AIDS activism around the globe, and she will be heading to Kenya, the Ivory Coast and other African countries.

She said that her brother’s appearance in “How to Survive a Plague” is fitting because he was one of the hundreds of thousands who died from the disease while the drugs to treat him were bogged down in bureaucracy.

“There were 300,000 people dead before the government even did anything,” she said of the government’s response to the AIDS crisis. “They weren’t getting the drugs through the system and it was really underfunded. ACT UP made real changes through non-violent direct action and I’m really grateful for the work they did.”

Patierno said her brother and the activist community will be on her mind when she watches the Oscars Sunday. “It’s so great for the community because it acknowledges the important role Act Up and other activists played in the political discourse of the country,” she said of the nomination.

In addition to knowing France, Patierno said one of the executive producers of “How to Survive a Plague,” Joy Tomchin, has been a supportive friend over the years.

“It’s been a really good year for documentaries. There’s a lot of competition,” she said of the Oscar field. “I’m thrilled for them. I’d love to see them on the stage.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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