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.
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.
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.
While New York was the global main stage for much of the gay civil rights and AIDS-centered healthcare action, San Francisco was an equally vital opposite coast partner in bringing the movement to the forefront. Milk captures the city's energy, and tells the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official. Showing his growth from a camera shop owner to national figurehead, the movie exposes just how difficult and dangerous it was for Milk to be "out" in a time when not many were willing to risk their lives to do so.
Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt (1989)
Taking a drastic turn in perspective from the previously mentioned films, Common Threads is important because it shares a slice of what the public was seeing and feeling at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Once labeled the "gay cancer," the documentary shows that the disease did not discriminate. Though ACT UP was openly unsupportive of The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (which the film centers around) because it felt it softened the message, Common Threads sought to inform the public with personal stories of many people who lived and died at the hands of the disease.
The Other City (2010)
A look at the current state of the still-raging war on AIDS, but this time set in the nation's capital. This film carries its weight in the sheer numbers it presents -- like the fact that decades after the first case of HIV was reported in the U.S. and almost as many years after activism for proper healthcare to treat those infected began, three percent of Washington D.C.'s population is living with it. Pivotal ACT UP member Larry Kramer speaks, as well as politicians, community organizers and those living with AIDS in the current decade.
How To Survive A Plague opens Friday at the Denver FilmCenter. For show times and tickets, visit the theater's website.
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