Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 21, 2013

Filmmaker fights AIDS his way

By Anne Stanton
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Max Fisher has a problem.

About two years ago, the Traverse City filmmaker began an AIDS documentary that focuses on the young generation of AIDS activists, but he can’t seem to turn off the camera. Their stories are just too compelling.

“The producer is telling me I need to stop, and I say, ‘No. I have to keep recording these amazing stories,” he said. “If they don’t make it in the movie, they’ll make it somewhere else.”

But at some point, it will be time to “shut up and edit,” Fisher said.

Fisher has taken the lead of his activist mom, Mary Fisher, who recently appeared on the Today Show to talk about her newest and sixth book, “Messenger: A Self Portrait.”

Fisher tells her story through the promise she made in her famous speech at the Republican National Convention in 1992: “I want my children to know that their mother was not a victim. She was a messenger.”

Her poignant, 13-minute speech turned the image of AIDS on its head. Here was a classic beauty and daughter of a prominent Republican family. She worked as the first woman “advance man” in the Gerald Ford White House. But Mary learned she had contracted AIDS from her husband, whom she divorced in 1991.

She pleaded for a more compassionate world unafraid to say the word AIDS.

“I will not hurry to leave you, my children,” she said. “But when I go, I pray that you will not suffer shame on my account.”

Max, four at the time, said his mom was prepared to die, but shielded him and his brother from a sense of pending doom. As it turns out, the development of antiretroviral therapies has allowed her a long life.

AIDS awareness became her life’s cause. Her latest message: AIDS medications can’t help the hundreds of thousands who can’t afford them or tolerate the side effects. And there is still no cure. The World Health Organization reported close to 2 million died in 2010.

Max and his brother tested negative for H.I.V., yet lived with its reality every day. Max said his mother was honest about the disease, but never made him fearful.

Mary never thought she’d see Max get married, and breast cancer last year complicated the picture. But last September, she witnessed his marriage vows to Susan Borke.

Max fondly regards Borke as his “voice of reason” and biggest supporter for FishSoup Films, his full-service film production company. Michael Moore brought the couple together. Fisher worked post-production on Moore’s film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” Borke works as an executive assistant for the Traverse City Film Festival, which Moore co-founded.

Max said his mother enthusiastically supports his documentary, yet he is realistic. His mom’s speech was seen by 27 million people. A documentary on pain and dying just won’t have the same pull, he said.

“I don’t ever expect to shine as much as she does,” he said. “But if I can make even a small impact in one area, I’m happy with that.”

There are still many young people who struggle with shame, particularly those who live in the Bible Belt.

“They don’t want to be ostracized by their church and family so they shrivel up and die, without getting tested,” he said.