Music and Memories
For over 20 years, Mimi Stern-Wolfe has produced the Benson AIDS Series concerts in New York. These annual events are an ode to the composer friends she lost to HIV/AIDS. Melbourne filmmaker Rohan Spong’s latest film All The Way Through Evening is about the 70-something Mimi, and her dedication to keeping the music of her friends alive. By Rachel Cook.
Rohan Spong met Mimi Stern-Wolfe while he was in New York promoting his documentary on transgender school teachers, T is for Teacher.
“I was looking for a pianist to play this particular piece of music for a new project I was thinking about,” Spong tells GNN.
“I was Googling to see who did, and that’s how I came across Mimi.”
Their first meeting was held over lunch on the Lower East Side in New York. During lunch Stern-Wolfe looked up and casually remarked, “Oh, that’s where Eric used to live”. Eric was Eric Benson, a young composer who died from an AIDS-related illness in 1988. He was one of Mimi’s closest friends and one of many to succumb to HIV/AIDS.
“I come from a generation that came after the brunt after the AIDS epidemic,” Spong says. “I have a really vague recollection of those Grim Reaper ads, but other than that I didn’t have that much knowledge of the scale of it and how many people were lost.”
It was after speaking with Mimi about her experiences of that time in New York when so many gay men in her circle died of an AIDS-related illness that Spong realised of all the documentaries made on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, few focussed on such a personal story.
“There are documentaries about HIV/AIDS but they are often political and often about facts and figures. I think the community aspect of it is often lost, so I wanted to make a film that was about a very specific neighbourhood of people who knew each other socially for a whole variety of reasons to do with music.”
After Stern-Wolfe told Spong about the music she was planning for her next Benson AIDS Series concert, Spong began researching the composers. Via Stern-Wolfe’s recollections, surviving partners and friends and family members memories we meet these men who were composing some of the most extraordinary music of the time.
“I was conscious that I didn’t want all the people in the film from the same walk of life,” Spong says. “That’s why there is a sister, a lover, a best friend, a collaborator. It’s a diverse group of people who had very different types of relationships with these men.”
Spong’s style makes for a moving film that pays homage to these men while never straying into over-dramatics. The interviewees take you on their personal journeys of the men they have lost, while the devotion and warmth of Mimi, a constant presence in the film, elevates All The Way Through Evening to another level.
All The Way Through Evening received a standing ovation when it premiered in New York on World AIDS Day in 2011. Since then it has screened at the Dublin Gaze Film Festival and the Birmingham SHOUT Film Festival where it won the Audience Choice award for ‘Best Documentary Feature’.
“A lot of older people have come up to me and said thank you and that’s really humbling,” Spong says.
“I feel I’ve come somewhere where we can access this part of time which I had very little knowledge of. A lot of the younger people are just absolutely gutted because they just didn’t understand the scale of it and how many people were lost.
“I hope when audiences leave they get the sense of the accumulation of just how many people in somebody like Mimi’s life are now gone.”
All The Way Through Evening will be released nationwide over the World AIDS Day weekend. All proceeds from the screenings on World AIDS Day, December 1, will go to individual HIV/AIDS organisations in each state. For Spong the reach his film is having into the broader community is paramount.
“This is such an important part of our history not just as gay men, but also as human beings,” Spong says.
[Images] Mimi Stern-Wolfe (second image) shares her story in Rohan Spong (third image) in All The Way Through Evening.
All The Way Through Evening opens in selected cinemas on November 29.
Special charity screening are being held to mark World AIDS Day:
Melbourne - Cinema Nova
All ticket proceeds from Dec 1 screening to be donated to Vic AIDS Council / Gay Men's Health Centre. Q&A screening at 11.00am on December 2
Sydney - Dendy Newtown
All ticket proceeds from Dec 1 Screening will be donated to ACON (AIDS Council of NSW). Q&A screening with Rohan Spong at 7.30pm on December 1
Canberra - Dendy Canberra
All ticket proceeds from Dec 1 Screening will be donated to Action AIDS (ACT)
Brisbane - Palace Centro, 39 James St, Fortitude Valley
All filmmaker's ticket proceeds from entire opening week will be donated to the Hope Fund for people living with HIV/AIDS
Adelaide - Mercury Cinema
Ticket proceeds from Dec 1 Screening will be donated to the AIDS Council of South Australia (ACSA)