Fighting a plague

Mark Pendleton reviews two film histories of the inspiring story of AIDS activism in the US

August 27, 2013
5 min read

fightingapAt the peak of the AIDS crisis, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) developed an innovative model of social movement organising, featuring provocative direct action, striking visual propaganda and the use of a range of new technologies to document and disseminate its actions. It was also influential in transforming understandings of healthcare, drug testing methodologies, corporate profit motives, mass media reporting of the experiences of the marginalised and attitudes to queer people themselves. Given its major significance in social movement history and its abundant archive of audio-visual material, that ACT-UP had not been a subject for documentary film-makers had been a major source of frustration. With two major features out in 2012, however, that historical anomaly has begun to be corrected.

The better known of these films is the Academy Award-nominated How to Survive a Plague by journalist David France, which has also been optioned as a mini-series. The other is Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: a history of ACT-UP, which he co-produced with prominent queer scholar and long-term collaborator Sarah Schulman. Both centre on the story of ACT-UP New York, draw on similar footage and interview subjects, were funded by similar sources and feature both filmmakers in each film’s credits. However, the documentaries diverge in tone, style and in their central case for the historical significance of ACT-UP.

For France, the lasting legacy of ACT-UP emerges from its early demand to ‘get drugs into bodies’ as a means of curtailing the dramatic effects of the ‘plague’ on New York’s gay male population. His film centres on the efforts of a small subset of ACT-UP, the Treatment and Data Committee, which later split off from the main group as the Treatment Action Group (TAG). This body transformed people’s relationship to the virus through radical self-education, revolutionising the relationship between healthcare providers, medical scientists, government regulators and the affected. France is not wrong – TAG’s activities in many ways transformed HIV care. However, watching his film leaves the viewer with the sense that the history of AIDS activism is one in which a group of (self-) educated New Yorkers, largely white gay men, stopped the plague in its tracks through forcing engagement with major drug companies and government regulators.

A more complicated history is told in Hubbard’s film, which sees the group as an object lesson in social movement organisation. Hubbard’s focus is on the tactical and strategic decisions of ACT-UP, including its use of weekly mass meetings and affinity groups. This dual structure allowed for collective decision-making, as well as autonomous organising in trusted small groups. United in Anger also places a much greater emphasis on visual imagery, graphic design and video, documenting the collective Gran Fury, whose iconic designs transformed the nature of social movement art, the Damned Interfering Video Artists Television (DIVA-TV), which recorded and distributed footage of ACT-UP’s actions, and the later ACT-UP Oral History Project, which Hubbard and Schulman coordinated.

Hubbard is also concerned that his film records not only the experiences of white gay men. Lesbians and other women were central figures in ACT-UP, as people who understood through their own experiences of organising against the unjust nature of privatised healthcare and inadequate public infrastructure. The impact of these injustices on the poor became more prominent as the virus increasingly affected broader populations. Hubbard’s documentation of the roles of IV drug users, people of colour, women and homeless people reveals that ACT-UP was much more than just a drug access movement. It saw that the institutions that governed US society – corporations, the state and the church – were all in need of radical transformation.

As a queer man who is just a few years younger than the central figures in this story, I am fortunate not to have had to live through the deaths of hundreds of lovers and friends. As beneficiaries of the legacy of ACT-UP, we must honour this history as a history of collective resistance to a virus that resulted in the radical transformation of treatment and health care for many people living with HIV. It is also essential, however, for us to honour this history as one that shows that access is an insufficient demand; our movements must be willing to demand structural and social change. Sometimes this requires us to literally put our bodies on the line.

As long as there is no cure for AIDS, as long as access to human needs is conditional on wealth and privilege, and as long as injustices remain in the world, ACT-UP’s battle is not over. These films remind us of those who struggled, achieving partial wins and suffering many, many losses. They also call on us to continue to ‘ACT UP, Fight Back, and Fight AIDS’.

Find out how to get hold of the films at www.surviveaplague.com and www.unitedinanger.com. Additional interviews with ACT-UP members can be viewed for free at www.actuporalhistory.org


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