AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman
The Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival 2021
@aidsdiva | @dalencastre
Seizing her power as she confronts her mortality, trailblazing trans activist Connie Norman evolves as an irrepressible, challenging and soulful voice for the AIDS and queer communities of early 90's Los Angeles.
Hi Dante thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you held up during these very strange times?
I held up by reviewing archival footage of Connie Norman in action, watching her rightful anger, her radical resistance, listening to her pointed wit, and prescient wisdom. Finishing this film was my wake-up call every morning. Our team worked mostly virtually to make sure Connie’s story would be told now. The irony of working on a film about the AIDS pandemic during our current one was not lost on us. We have yet to learn from the past, from our history.
Has this time provided you with any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
It taught me to be patient, flexible, innovative, and rewired my brain about the way stories can be created and still be compelling and impactful. When I saw thousands of people chanting alongside Black Lives Matter during the pandemic and chanting the same chants that our community did during the 80s and 90s, it was the fuel that kept our team going during production. To never forget where I came from and to start mentoring young filmmakers.
What does it mean to you to have AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman part of Palm Springs LGBTQ Film Festival?
Festivals like these are vital for the empowerment of our youth. Seeing yourself represented on screen can possibly be lifesaving, due to the virtual component I trust that folks in far-flung places will get to watch one of our stories and feels less alone. Politically we are not where we should be; I am thinking about our American anti-trans bills and reproductive rights. There’s still loads of work to do, and us storytellers have more relevant, resonant, and disruptive tales to tell.
When did you first discover Connie Norman and her work?
Connie passed away 25 years; her story has been around LA for decades. I have been living in LA for just 14 years so the first time I heard her name was when I was making Transvisible: Bamby Salcedo’s Story. In Bamby’s mantle, I saw a plaque with Connie’s name for Bamby’s trans leadership. But it was only 4 years ago when one of Connie’s friends told me about her importance and relevance to the community. After I decided to make the film and I was invited to join the ACT UP LA Facebook page, that is when the floodgates open and a plethora of recollections, photos, tapes, were available to us and when we met some of her friends and peers who remember her fondly and regale with copious stories of their fearless AIDS DIVA we knew we have to make this film.
Can you tell me a little bit about how AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman came about?
As I mentioned earlier, my co-producer and researcher, John Johnston and I began to collect VHS and photos. Folks had boxes of VHS tapes, Super 8 and beta that were gathering dust and we decided to digitise as much as we could. Luckily one of her friends, a broadcaster had the foresight to film Connie, not only at rallies, arrests, and civil disobedience actions but also at rest and just living life.
At that point, we knew we had a film because we had Connie talking about her life and sharing her prescient wisdom in her own voice.
What was it about Connie Norman's life, story and work that connected with you as a documentarian?
My connection with Connie’s story of activism is primarily as an activist first and then an artist. My films and my arts nonprofit work is about paying it forward to the next generation and Connie was in her last days worried about the trans siblings and children she was leaving. Preserving her legacy is what this activist filmmaking heart intended and succeeded to do. This film is for everyone who wants to act up and fight back to make their world a better one than the one we have right now. We are deeply divided, and the film is a blueprint of one individuals’ journey into changing the status quo, working hard, and making a difference in times of crisis. I also hope it gives them pause, reflection, and solace. We are still in the middle of a pandemic; lives have been changed in significant and painful ways. We are still divided. But there is a lot we can do together to change the status quo intentionally and mindfully. Connie teaches that one voice can move mountains, in times of crisis and in times of peace. We must continue to be vigilant, take to the streets, and act up.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I have always had a passion for storytelling, I started with theatre back in College and then in the early 90’s I picked a 16mm and shot my first narrative short. Years later after working on cable news show that I found my passion for documentary filmmaking.
I have seen how these living stories impact my community and teach compassion and empathy across the land.
How much has your approach to your films changed since you made “Transvisible” Bamby Salcedo’s Story and how much has this narrative behind trans lives changed since you made this film?
I am always inspired by my LGBTIQ+ community in L.A, full of fierce, funny, intentional, and mindful friends and activists. I believe that Connie Norman epitomises the strength and fearlessness that our community is being built upon, the shoulders we stand on. Discovering her story gave me the opportunity to examine my own life and my experience of being in NYC during that pandemic. It was cathartic and redemptive and allow me to pay homage to everyone who fought, lived through it, and are still living full realised as long term survivors or warriors as I like to think of them.
Trans lives narratives are more prevalent, richer, diverse, and authentic because trans, GNC, non-binary and intersex storytellers are telling their own stories.
I listen and learn as much as I can from them, and I am intentionally respectful of their opinions and comments about my work.
"Be flexible, be inventive, be disruptive, and as Connie would tell you, be yourself because you know who yourself is."
Should LGBTQ+ filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of stories and subjects they want to produce?
Our collective consciousness needs these stories, as a community, we need to know our history, and whose shoulders we stand on. Our community lived through the AIDS pandemic, we were demonised, politically used as pawns, neglected, and rejected by our families. One bright spot was that it brought our community together, we tended to our sick and took to the streets as Connie did.
Is there any advice you would offer someone about making their first film?
Be flexible, be inventive, be disruptive, and as Connie would tell you, be yourself because you know who yourself is. Keep creating your stories and the community will embrace you.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Connie Norman life and work?
Connie’s story is vital for the empowerment of our youth. Seeing yourself represented on screen can possibly be lifesaving, due to this virtual platform I trust that folks in far-flung places will get to watch one of our stories and feel less alone. Politically we are not where we should be; I am thinking about our American anti-trans bills and even here with the lack of support to ban conversion therapy. There are still loads of work to do, and we storytellers have more relevant, resonant, and disruptive tales to tell.