AIDS, ACT UP Documentary Tells Compelling Story with Archival Footage

ACT UP, fight back, fight AIDS!

As a Ph.D. student, planned—and some times not-so-planned—procrastination is the only way to cope with stress, work and feelings of isolation. Many times my little mental vacations take a couple of days, but I usually come out at the other end of the “lazcation” having consumed enormous amounts of mass media.

I’m in the middle of one of these “lazcations” right now. How dare the beginning of the spring semester interfere? So this week I’ve watched or re-watched way too many films (most of them trash) and television. However, I have to say I did do bit of educational viewing—or at least that’s what I’m claiming.

On Thursday, I watched How to Survive a Plague, the Academy Award nominated documentary about the AIDS epidemic and the New York AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Wow! Is really all I can say. You have to watch it.

Sounds a bit like an advertisement but it is true.

I wrote my master’s thesis on the media’s coverage of the AIDS epidemic in New Orleans from 1981 to 1991. I’ve seen more than a few documentaries about the AIDS pandemic and the response, but I’ve never seen something so rich with historical evidence.

The reliance on archival footage from ACT UP gives the documentary the feeling of a news story. Few scenes are current (only up-to-date interviews with those featured in the archival footage). Folks living through the crisis in the mid-1980s and 1990s tell most of the story.

I had, of course, heard of ACT UP and other organizations like Queer Nation and TAG that relied on more radical tactics to fight for their lives (and that’s not a cliché, they were literally fighting for their lives).

I’m hoping How to Survive wins the Oscar, and the story of the men and women who fought for AIDS treatment and research and public awareness is told on an even wider scale. But more important are the stories of those that didn’t make it. The stories that can only be told from the past.

Here’s a small list of films, documentaries and television productions that I’ve viewed to help me to understand more of what it really meant to live during, die from and survive a plague. I’m sure I’m leaving out some of the really important films and documentaries. Let me know and we’ll add to the list.

Trailer for How to Survive a Plague

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