How To Survive A Plague: An AIDS and GLBTQ activism film primer

From How To Survive A Plague, activist Peter Staley
From How To Survive A Plague, activist Peter Staley
IFC Films

In 1987, ACT UP -- the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power -- was born in New York City, an activist-centered response to the growing HIV and AIDS epidemic that was largely going ignored by the American government. Through How To Survive A Plague, a documentary opening Friday, October 12 at the Denver FilmCenter, the story of these activists is told, sewn together by the underlying tale of how ACT UP restructured and gave power to modern social, political and health issue-related movements by the people.

How To Survive A Plague succeeds at contextualizing the direct action movement from all sides, delving into key activists' personal lives when warranted, but pulls back to show the bigger social and political picture. Straightforward interviews with those who were there -- Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, Derek Link and dozens of others -- are juxtaposed with footage of public funerals, activist-police clashes across the country and the hysteria-inciting TV news shots of individuals dying of AIDS-related complications.

In advance of How To Survive A Plague's Friday opening, here are five more films digging into the history and activism around AIDS and HIV and the GLBTQ civil rights movement that continues today.

See Also: - David France examines the history and survival of ACT UP - In Theaters: How To Survive A Plague - Cinema Q kicks off a weekend of queer films tonight at Denver FilmCenter

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United In Anger (2012)

ACT UP's history within the social and political movement around the AIDS epidemic is covered in How To Survive A Plague, but United In Anger puts a microscope to the group. Part of what makes this movie -- and this movement -- so successful was its place in time; the late 80s and early 90s yielded a lot of Do-It-Yourself documentation innovations, so the first-person film footage of public action as it happened is plentiful. DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activists) were key in recording the movement, and the film benefits from the group's guerrilla shooting tactics.

Vito (2011)

A great balance of the personal story of activist Vito Russo and the larger gay rights movement of the 70s and beyond, Vito puts a singular face to the groundbreaking time in New York City. Witnessing the pivotal Stonewall Riots in 1969, Russo went on to become a key figure in the fight for AIDS awareness and equality, helping to organize GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and as frequent speaker for ACT UP.

His passion was American cinema, one that he translated into a platform for educating the public about Hollywood -- and later, the media's -- treatment of GLBTQ individuals. The film showcases Russo as a great orator of the movement, as well as a writer whose work reached the masses through Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Esquire and more. Russo's 1981 book, The Celluloid Closet, was later made into a movie in 1996.

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