Sour Times: How To Survive A Plague film review
As I watched our President sworn in for his second term this week I was pleased to note that in his inauguration speech he gave a shout-out to the Stonewall riots and made encouraging noises about marriage equality. Though subtle and fleeting, it was a definite indicator of the mainstreaming of the LGBT movement.
This is especially evident after seeing David France’s stunning new documentary, How To Survive A Plague, which focuses on the early days of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. The contrast is stark between President Obama’s careful but inclusive mention of LGBT rights and the Reagan/Bush administration’s rampant homophobia and indifference to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s. France’s film specifically looks at the efforts of ACTUP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) in New York City as that grassroots organization sought to increase awareness of the epidemic and to pressure the government to develop treatments for the disease.
As one who lived through those times the film was very hard to watch in several spots, bringing back memories of the countless early deaths that devastated the gay community, here in San Francisco as well as in New York City and around the world. Though it’s very New York white middle-class male-centric (hello, Haiti?) it’s nonetheless a well-made and impressive piece of filmmaking. The documentary traces the stories of several young, mostly HIV-positive men who take up the struggle after the U.S. government fails to address the epidemic (then-President Ronald Reagan didn’t publicly utter the word “AIDS” until 1987, more than six years after the first case was diagnosed). The film follows several of these newly minted activists as they pressured the government, the medical establishment, and the pharmaceutical companies to search for effective treatments for AIDS.
The genesis of ACTUP coincided with the widespread use of the camcorder and the film is comprised primarily of historical camcorder footage interspersed with modern-day interviews. Although it took my digitally acclimated eye a little while to adjust to the unsharp VHS and Hi8 footage, the softer, fuzzier images are very evocative of the time and ultimately become a visual signifier for the era. Though not as crisp and clear as modern-day digital recordings, the footage is nonetheless powerful and moving as it documents seminal moments such as ACTUP’s infamous 1989 St. Patrick’s Cathedral “die-in,” the confrontation between ACTUP member Bob Rafsky and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton (who gives as good as he gets, by the way), and the capping of extreme homophobe and all-around dickwad Senator Jesse Helms’ house in a massive canvas jimmy hat. The handheld, lo-fi quality emphasizes the immediacy of the footage and one archival sequence in particular, where dozens of protestors fling the ashes of loved ones who have died of AIDS onto the White House lawn, becomes astoundingly powerful in its intimacy.
Director France skillfully weaves together historical footage of the often-contentious ACTUP meetings (one featuring fire-breathing playwright Larry Kramer lambasting the bickering factions), various demonstrations, interventions, and acts of civil disobedience, and more personal footage of several significant participants, following them to their eventual fates. Sadly, for many including performance artist Ray Navarro, this means death from AIDS-related illnesses. After witnessing Navarro gleefully skewer the religious right as he performs as Jesus in early ACTUP demonstrations, it’s painful and poignant to watch his last days captured on video as he succumbs to blindness and delirium. The film follows other individuals who meet similar fates and, after watching video footage of them playing with their children at birthday parties or speaking out eloquently against ignorance and homophobia, their deaths are deeply felt losses. The film effectively captures the horror of the era as seemingly healthy young men are articulate and strong one day and are frail and dying of opportunistic infections and Kaposi’s sarcoma the next.
Some may argue that the movie is just another rehash of the ACTUP/Larry Kramer/New York City mythology that’s way too focused on a small group of gay white men to the exclusion of the rest of those affected by AIDS. To be fair, there are a couple women activists included (but their stories aren’t followed to the extent of the men in the movie), Latino artist and DIVA-TV member Ray Navarro has a featured role, and some of the b-roll includes images of African American men. Would the film have been a more inclusive and representative picture of the AIDS epidemic if there had more Haitians or females or people of color included? Sure. Would that make it a better, more powerful film? Not necessarily, it would just make it a different film. As it stands, the emotional and visceral impact is there, the craft is there, and the storytelling chops are there. Despite its somewhat narrow worldview, the movie makes a strong case for grassroots organizing and for standing up to institutional indifference, hostility, and outright discrimination, and for that it’s a significant and important piece of work.