Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Filmmaker France tells the history of ACT UP [UPDATE]

How To Survive A Plague
USA 2012; 110 min.
directed by David France
A Sundance Selects release

Peter Staley in action. Photo: William Lucas Walker

That's Peter Staley--former Wall Street bond trader; later, ACT UP's rock-star activist--who not only talked the eloquent talk but walked the kickass walk along with many comrades, putting the media, pharmaceutical companies, medical researchers and politicians on notice that a community terrorized by AIDS was not going to sit quietly, simply hoping for attention and help. It was going to get in people's faces and demand the research and treatments it needed to survive.

David France's exhilarating and moving How to Survive A Plague relates the boisterous history of ACT UP--all the triumphs and missteps--with a personalizing focus on several of its leading activists. These include Staley and Mark Harrington as well as the late Bob Rafsky who died from AIDS complications in 1993. Rafsky will be remembered by most for his confrontation with presidential-hopeful Bill Clinton that led to the famous "I feel your pain" non-answer.

That scene, from a Clinton fundraiser, is highlighted in France's documentary along with many others that retell the progression of HIV/AIDS in New York's gay male community and that community's dramatic, intelligent responses. Although a sprinkling of women and people of color are shown or interviewed, France has concentrated on assembling footage and gathering oral history that reflect ACT UP as an initiative emerging from well-educated gay white men with an inherent sense of empowerment commensurate with their rage and compassion. Along the way, we do get to see and hear from female advocates and activists--media-savvy Ann Northrop, future journalist Garance Franke-Ruta and pharmaceutical chemist Iris Long, PhD, among a few others.

Essential history can easily be lost. In a climate of right-wing backlash, it can get twisted. New generations of social activists working on marriage equality, transgender rights, immigrant rights and many other progressive issues today need to learn about these shoulders upon which they stand. And we all need a blade of truth to disrupt the nasty fog of culture war that has arisen once again in our country.

[Update: Frank Bruni writes about this documentary in the March 17 New York Times--The Living After the Dying.]

See a screening of How to Survive A Plague at the 2012 New Directors/New Films Festival at the following locations:

Saturday, March 24, 9pm
Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue), Manhattan

Monday, March 26, 6pm
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53r Street (between 5th And 6th Avenues), Manhattan

How to Survive A Plague Web site

How to Survive A Plague Facebook page

Information on New Directors/New Films


Il Diretore said...

Jim Hubbard's film "United In Anger" has more than " ...a smattering of women and people of color", and those people talk about the avid involvement of those communities regarding issues affecting them: Haitian AIDS quarantine at Guantanimo, restriction of medications to women, etc. The two films use a lot of footage from the same sources with the difference being that Hubard's film makes it clear that ACT_UP was by no means a predominantly gay white male led movement. I have not yet seen France's documentary, but by all accounts it seems his representation singles out the pharmaceutical developments that were the primary goal of the white male contingents of ACT _UP's Treatment Action Group (TAG). It somehow doesn't seem coincidental that the predomant retrospective view of the movement is as a primarily white male incentive that ultimately benefited one of the most powerful industries in the world, the American pharmaceutical business. Both films were released at the same time at the same venues, but it is France's point of view that is in major distribution. There is a grass roots grass endeavor to have Hubbard's film widely seen. As usual, the interested public will have to voice their demand for a broader, more accurate view of history. See a trailer ofUnited In Anger on YouTube and google the title for future screenings and kick starter distribution campaign: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soE9f5thNE4&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Eva Yaa Asantewaa said...

Il Diretore, I'm glad to get your information and welcome the chance for this aspect of the history to be acknowledged. I'll follow up on your link and post the information for InfiniteBody readers. Thanks very much.

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