There was a time not so long ago when you could watch movies and never know a disease called AIDS ever existed. And I’m not exaggerating. For years I was a film section editor and watched over 400 movies a year. And after a few initial films about AIDS — Longtime Companion, Zero Patience, Philadelphia — the disease seemed to simply disappear.
I refer to this at the time as epidemic amnesia, in particular regarding Denys Arcand’s Oscar-winning 2003 film Les Invasions Barbares, a sequel to The Decline of the American Empire (1986). In the first film, we see a character who is clearly struggling with the onset of AIDS. He’s gay, has a history of promiscuity and complains of night sweats and weight loss. He’s not well. But by the second film—voila!—there’s no mention of the disease and he looks fit as a fiddle.
I’m not necessarily blaming anyone. After all, the early years of the AIDS crisis were as horrific a thing as anyone could imagine. Activist Larry Kramer likened it to a Holocaust, and for gay men living in urban centres, it was. People were surrounded by slow, horrid deaths of friends and loved ones, and the promise of what we then called the gay liberation movement had suddenly found itself under vicious attack. Worse still was the reaction of so many bystanders. The religious right didn’t surprise with their you-deserved-it line. It was the liberals who really disappointed, especially in places like Hollywood, a city that, as Liz Taylor noted in her condemnation of the deafening silence surrounding AIDS, “was built by Jews and homosexuals.”
Perhaps it was due to the 30th anniversary of the identification of HIV, but this past couple of years has seen some seriously thoughtful films on the subject. And once again, the documentary form appears to be the conscience of the cinematic medium. Last year there was We Were Here and Vito, the latter being a biopic of Vito Russo, AIDS activist and author of The Celluloid Closet.
This year comes two vital, exhilarating feature-length docs about the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in New York, United in Anger and How to Survive a Plague. The latter film, directed by David France, shows us the anguish suffered by those on the front lines: their diminishing immune systems, their anxieties about the future, their anger at the systems—health care and all levels of government—that were failing them so miserably.
Having been a member of ACT UP when I lived in New York in 1988, this film is a jarring reminder of those heady, fraught times. Some of it would be funny if it wasn’t so disturbing. We see footage of New York Mayor Ed Koch dodging questions about his administration’s piss-poor record on the epidemic. We see clips from the CNN debate show Crossfire, in which the right and left were supposed to square off on crucial issues of the day—which leaves one to wonder: where was the left on this show? One lonely AIDS activist was left to try to explain the entire epidemic and what being gay was to two utterly clueless pundits (one of them being none other than Patrick Buchanan).
But as I watch these documentaries, I’m struck by just how damn brave these activists were. Most of them were fairly sure their days were numbered, but there they were, antagonizing homophobic authorities and demanding pharmaceutical companies change their policies, and that government officials begin to recognize just how dire the entire situation was.
It’s a bumpy trip down memory lane. But when I talk about the AIDS crisis in the classes I teach at Concordia, I’m reminded of the fact that these young people — estimated median age of about 21 — know nothing of what that time was like. Thanks to brilliant documentary filmmakers, people can learn. Because as ludicrously corny as it sounds, it really is crucial that we don’t forget what that time was like, nor all the astonishingly talented people we lost to this disease.
See this film!
The Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague screens this Sunday, March 10 at 2pm at the Cinema du Parc, as part of the Magnus Opus film series