March 19, 2008

Reviewed by Aaron Roxby

As a person who came of age, if you will, in the early 1990s, the words “Safe” and “Sex” have always gone hand in hand. AIDS, that ugly, capitalized buzz-kill has been around my entire life and as a result, it is difficult to imagine the kind of ire that activists Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen received, when they introduced the concept of safe sex in the early 80s.

Most people don’t know the name Richard Berkowitz. That is what director Daryl Wein attempts to remedy with his excellent documentary Sex Positive. Berkowitz’s story is prime fodder for a documentary of this nature. The first half of film is a ribald tour of gay New York in the early eighties. After discovering his sexuality on Miami Beach at the age of fifteen, Berkowitz moved on to becoming a gay-radical student and, eventually an S&M Hustler in Brooklyn. After being diagnosed with AIDS, Berkowitz joined up with Dr Joseph Sonnabend and musician Michael Callen. Together they authored a pamphlet entitled How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, which is widely credited as the beginning of the Safe Sex movement. However, while Callen and Sonnabend are both well known for their contributions to AIDS awareness, Berkowitz lives in near total anonymity, disabled and on the edge of poverty.

Through interviews, narration, photos and historical TV footage, Weinpaints a vivid picture of Berkowitz, of gay New York in the late 70s and of the terror that AIDS brought with it when the 80s arrived. Most of the film rests on Berkowitz to carry and, fortunately, he is more than up to the task. Blunt, profane, mustachioed and charming, one can understand how he rubbed people wrong twenty years ago, but just might be the right sort of person to spread this message today.

AIDS is still around. Unfortunately, a distressing number of people seem to have forgotten about this fact and, as a result, the disease is on the rise again. Sex Positive is the best kind of political documentary, one which slips this message in, as part of a fascinating, previously untold story.

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