Interview with Aaron Brookner, director of Uncle Howard

Ng Yi-Sheng

June 20, 2016

I'll be focussing on the performances in The O.P.E.N., so I won't be able to catch that many films in The O.P.E.N. Film. Still, that doesn't mean I can't sneak in an interview with a director or two!

Uncle Howard is a documentary about the American director Howard Brookner, who was an integral part of the New York avant-garde scene until his death from AIDS in 1989. His legacy was completely forgotten, until his nephew Aaron Brookner—also a filmmaker—decided to try tracking down his lost works. Uncle Howard is the story of that journey of recovery, and it's showing at The Projector on 29 June, 7:30pm. Click here for reservations! 

Aaron Brookner's based in London, so we set up a Skype interview with him. That's him down there:

NYS: I’d like to thank you, first of all, as a gay man. Because to revive the legacy of a gay filmmaker who died of HIV in the 1980s—that’s an act of incredible reclamation of history for us.

AB: Yeah, absolutely. But I think also… When I grew up with Howard, he was just a very loving uncle, interested in me, interested in things I connected with. But also, as a kid, I had no concept of gay or straight or any sexual orientation at all. But I associated him with Brad Gooch, who was his partner.

And it was very interesting when I was interacting with Brad later on: [I realised that] when you’re exposed to different relationships predicated on love at an early age, you’re much more open. And I believe that for myself, and many people my generation hopefully, it keeps on improving. The more acceptance there is in family and friends, the more it’s going to get rid of all these ridiculous boundaries and judgments. So I think this was a gift that Howard gave me by being who he was, and being comfortable with that. He is responsible, in a way, for me growing up a straight man and not viewing homosexuality as anything strange at all.

He definitely shaped that in me. And he definitely shaped me in many other positive ways as well. A love of filmmaking, and sense of adventure.

Aaron Brookner and Jim Jarmusch

NYS: What do you feel was the most difficult part of making this film?

AB: There’s the literally difficult part and the most emotionally difficult part. The literal challenge of making the film was how to tell a story about a guy who’s not with us, whom most of us don’t know and whose work is missing. It’s like three very big challenges! And it was a massive labour to search and try to find old films and old video tapes and the reality of having to—for example, the bunker, we had a year long fight to get into the bunker [where Howard’s films were stored].

When I finally got the film reels out, they were 16 mm film reels with separate sound. You couldn’t just play them.  We had 300 boxes of 16 mm film! And then I was tasked with the challenge of fundraising to digitize it, just to be able to see it. And finally when that hurdle was crossed, it wasn’t synced up. And there were no logbooks or sound notes. I literally had to go through 30 hours of the soundscape and try to place it roughly with the visuals. So it was just an intense labour to get all those things in place to create a film from it.

And then of course the emotional challenge of it was digging back into one’s past, and a family chapter that ended in tragedy. For decades, Howard’s story was sealed of by this layer of tragedy and depression over the awful end of his life and the AIDS epidemic in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. So I was kind of cautious about going back into that space, not just for me, but also awakening it for other people in the family and Howard’s friends. But once I managed to get into it and getting Howard’s story, that went away. The bad emotion, the negative emotion of the disease, was quickly replaced by the excitement of Howard’s life, what he made of his work and the memories he left in people.

NYS: I’m honestly really amazed that your family was so accepting of your uncle back then.

AB: You’ll see in the film my grandmother gave a very candid interview. When Howard first told her he was gay she was very distressed by it, as was Howard’s father. Because you know, as an upper middle-class Jewish family in the 1970s, they were worried he’d never have kids just have a difficult life. But as I said in the movie, when Howard brought Brad home, they saw what a loving relationship this was, and suddenly it wasn’t scary, and their fears for Howard were totally abated. They could see this was just a healthy relationship for their son, and they became very supportive of them. They made a real transition.

NYS: Did you know he’d died of AIDS when you were a kid?

As far as the AIDS, I didn’t know, because I was seven years old when he died. When I asked how Howard died, they said he had brain failure, which was a bit abstract to me. And a couple years later, the film Philadelphia came out and my father took me to see it, which was a rather dramatic way of showing me what had happened to Howard. And by then I was 13 and I knew Howard was gay, and that he had died of AIDS.


NYS: I’m also intrigued by the role that Kickstarter played in your project. You began funding your restoration of Howard’s film about William Burroughs with it, didn’t you? And that’s what evolved into Uncle Howard?

AB: Yeah, but what’s interesting what I think about Kickstarter and crowdfunding is that it’s not about the money. When you break it down, it’s terrible business. I needed US$20,000: to get that money, which in the end wasn’t even enough to make the remastering, me and my producer were campaigning and writing emails full time for three months. So in the end, when you break it down, you’re not even making minimum wage.

Maybe Spike Lee or Zach Braff can get it to work, but for most people it’s less about the money than the communication. I didn’t know how many people out there who would care. I knew Howard was important and Burroughs was important, but part of doing the crowdfunding was seeing if there was an audience for this film: if there was or there wasn’t, we might approach it differently.

And what was interesting was how wide an audience there was. We had people writing about us from Brazil, Japan, all over Europe. And it started to make it bigger, and also a lot of people came together who knew Howard. So this whole project from Burroughs’ work to Uncle Howard—it really had so many elements to it. Uncle Howard was really only possible with a lot of people working together and the support of a really worldwide community for Howard and this story.

Howard Brookner in Uncle Howard

NYS: The ‘80s are such a strange period, though. The ‘60s have been memorialized as a fantastic period of peace and love, but the ‘80s is remembered more as the age of big hair. And yet all the figures from that time: David Bowie, Robin Williams, Madonna… they’re still so iconic.

AB: You have in a way a really amazing moment in time there where you have the first generation of really open homosexuality, you had the second wave of feminism, you had two generations of artists: the beat generation and the new generation of artists… Whether it was Patti Smith, Basquiat, they were all living in the same area basically, with the same low rents so they all had plenty of time to make their work. They could share lots of drugs, they could share lots of sex, they could share lots of ideas. So there was this amazing crossover: lots of different forms.

And of course, where we are now: we took a slide backwards because of the AIDS epidemic and the right-wing counter against this sexual artistic utopia.

I think now, whether it’s style or music or art even film, lots of these things are still borrowing from that time period in a major, major way. And I think I found in a way, I don’t want to romanticize that area, because I wasn’t living then, and I’m sure I would have a  diff experience when I was 30 years old in the ‘80s.

But there is something that feels simple about an pre-internet world, a world where we’re not connected by screens, where your group of people consists of people across the block, sharing ideas about film: it’s all very physical, and there’s something a bit romantic about that. It’s very human.

NYS: Yeah, but I value the technology of the 21st century too. I’ve collaborated with artists intercontinentally over Skype!

AB: You’re in Singapore and I’m in London and this is possible. This is also amazing.


NYS: Could you tell us about your new projects?

AB: I’m putting together a new film, a fiction film called Black Deutschland, and it’s based on a novel written by Darryl Pinckney, who’s a beautiful brilliant writer whom I know quite well. I’m adapting it to direct it. It’s a story about an African American gay drug addict from Chicago who goes to live in West Berlin in the 1980s. And it’s a story really about the pressure of artistic achievement, especially in the African American community, and the kind of black expat story. So it’s about this main character, Jed, and his cousin Cello, and she’s s a classical pianist. So that’s the next film I’m putting together.

Yeah, there’s a couple other things involved with Howard’s stuff. His second film, which was a feature documentary about Robert Wilson, I’m with partners trying to remaster that and make that available in the same way we did with the Burroughs film.

I’m also creating art projects from the archive. You see mostly from the bunker Howard’s time in New York: it’s so massive and such a window into the world, and I want this to be relevant. And think archives are most relevant when they’re used for things.

 And I’m trying to create these lenticular images of them. And you can create a show around these objects along with an installation that I’m talking to Thurston Moore about, talking about the Nova Convention, because Howard was the only one who filmed the Nova Convention: a weekend long event devoted tot the work of William Burroughs which had performances by Philip Glass sand Patti Smith and Lori Anderson… So we’re creating an immersive experience where you can step into the Nova Convention of 1978.


NYS: One last question: do you have anything else you’d like to say to Singaporean audiences?

AB: I hope they enjoy the film and hope they connect with it in the way Howard seems to be inspiring so many people from all over the world. You tell me in Singapore there’s restrictions against the LGBT community. So I hope Howard can inspire people so that you really can create an influence.

What really stuck with me is a letter Howard left to his parents: “If I live on, it’s through your love and the films I made.” If it wasn’t for Howard and the way he touched me as a child, then I don’t know if I would’ve been a filmmaker. But because he lived a certain way, he really influenced me and a lot of people, so I hope this moment can be passed on and shared with the audience.

  • 2016