2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the first reported case of AIDS in the United States, and we still have much to learn from Pedro Zamora, the subject of Out On Film’s closing night film.
“Keep the Cameras Rolling: The Pedro Zamora Way” is a documentary sharing the true story of the AIDS activist and reality star. Zamora became an activist and educator after being diagnosed with AIDS when he was only 17 years old in 1989. This eventually led him to “The Real World: San Francisco,” a reality show airing on MTV in 1994 that brought a group of diverse strangers together in the same house.
“Keep the Cameras Rolling” pieces together footage from the show, as well as interviews with Zamora’s castmates, friends, and family, to document Zamora’s incredible bravery and public influence at a time when both being gay and having AIDS were deeply stigmatized. The film was made by co-directors William T. Horner and Stacey Woelfel along with a team of 20 students of the University of Missouri’s Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, some of whom will be at the world premiere screening on October 3.
At a time when Fox avoided showing a same-sex kiss on TV, “The Real World: San Francisco” provided an unprecedentedly honest and intimate representation of LGBTQ issues and AIDS. While on the show, Zamora was vocal about his diagnosis and used his platform to educate the millions of viewers on AIDS. But it was his likeable demeanor, easy vulnerability, and pure heart — all captured beautifully in the documentary — that really shifted public opinion.
“You see Pedro, he’s impossible not to like. Regardless of what biases and prejudices you have [while watching him], you think, ‘Wow, he’s a great guy!’ The fact that he’s a good guy gets you thinking that maybe you have the wrong idea about things,” Horner told Georgia Voice. “He was just the exact right guy at the exact right time.”
“Pedro was able to reach people you wouldn’t expect,” Woelfel added, “and still can today when people watch the film.”
“Keep the Cameras Rolling” acutely captures the love Zamora embodied and inspired in so many others, including castmates Judd Winick and Pam Ling, who married after the show. The directors said the interviews with the two of them lasted about five hours.
“There was just so much [Winick and Ling] wanted to say about Pedro, and it was clear that a lot of their lives had been spent trying to make Pedro’s legacy as everlasting as it could be,” Woelfel said.
“We interviewed people who knew Pedro really well and people who never even met Pedro, but with every single one of them you’d mention Pedro and it brings a smile to their face,” Horner said. “That’s the kind of person he was.”
The documentary culminates in the on-screen wedding between Zamora and his partner Sean Sasser, the first same-sex commitment ceremony in television history, before Zamora’s death at the tragically young age of 22 the day after the final episode aired.
A lot has changed since Zamora’s life — most notably, the institution of marriage equality — but some things, including the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS he faced so unashamedly, are still realities for many today. There’s a lot left we can learn from Zamora and his inspiring courage.
“We’re living in a time where the message of Pedro, which is accepting people for who they are, is still powerful,” Horner said. “He was so brave in so many ways, and he was brave before he knew he was going to die. He was brave coming out to his conservative Catholic family and community and going out as a teenager talking about [AIDS] — all before he tried out for ‘The Real World.’ It’s just a remarkable story of bravery and standing up for what you believe in and know is right and showing that that can actually work and have an impact on people. The legacy he left is huge, and it still resonates today.”
“People with courage can make a difference,” Woelfel said. “He showed his courage by being public with his disease and by speaking up and dashing stereotypes. There’s room in the world for people with courage, and they can really make a difference.”
“Keep the Cameras Rolling: The Pedro Zamora Way” makes its global premiere at Out On Film on October 3 at 7:30pm. at Out Front Theatre Company. It will be available to stream online from October 4 through 11 via the festival’s website, OutOnFilm.org.