ACT UP Documentaries: How to Survive a PLAGUE (second look) and UNITED IN ANGER: the History of ACT UP + WE WERE HERE
Commemorating the 25th anniversary of the founding of ACT UP, two documentaries have arrived that purport to tell the truth about ACT UP: David France’s HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE and Jim Hubbard’s UNITED IN ANGER: THE HISTORY OF ACT UP. They are two very different approaches trying to tell the story and impact of ACT UP. One is an adult fairy tale and the other a mostly visual timeline. Both draw upon much of the same visual documentation and focus on ACT UP-NY, despite how it became an international movement.
The two directors had once been room mates. Hubbard, a member of ACT UP-NY (as was) was an experimental film maker who had lost his significant other to AIDS and France was a journalist, starting his career writing about AIDS. Both share an activist insider point-of-view. I suggest this became both a strength and a weakness when it came to objectivity. It is also what gave me trouble in distancing myself to form a critical point of view after my original stance.
Note: after seeing the world premier of PLAGUE at Sundance I did file the next day a review published in WestView and social media.
After a few weeks and some distance from the emotional impact of seeing people alive on screen that I loved and whom are now dead, I began to have second, more critical thoughts and concerns about the documentaries. Hence my second look at PLAGUE and a comparison with UNITED IN ANGER.
Let’s go to the Movies
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE: director David France
David France is a well know magazine writer. His personal style, I would suggest, is high-end tabloid journalism. He picks a hot button subject and than tailors his article to make sure it sizzles, often leaving out critical facts that would complicate his story telling. It may work for New York Magazine but violates some of the basic rules, as I understand them, of documentary filmmaking. He picks and chooses facts that push his narrative but violates the search for truth and integrity that is essential to authentic documentary filmmaking.
His subject is the Treatment Action Group (TAG), a break-off group from ACT UP. TAG was emboldened by Larry Kramer’s demand for fast tracking experimental drugs into bodies in trouble. TAG members became know as “Larry’s Storm Troopers.” They had all been active members of ACT UP. First they seceded from the ACT UP Treatment and Data committee. Then, with Kramer’s support, failed in their attempt to appropriate ACT UP‘s treasury and take it with them. They wanted out of ACT UP leaving behind the debate raging over the lack of drug testing in women and children’s bodies, clean needle distribution and direct action targets. Only white male, white men bodies, were being tested in all but a very tiny number of clinical trials. TAG chose, rather, to sit inside at the table with federal government officials and PhARMA reps, while ACT UP demonstrated in the streets (Elinor Burkett The Gravest Show in Town is the best examination of the pitfalls and merits of such a strategy).
TAG was, with PhARMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) support, successful in fundamentally changing the rules of clinical trials. This change not only impacted the AIDS community, but also changed the protections for any clinical trail participant including those conducted on prisoners. No longer were PhARMA or the government responsible for any failures or negative side effects care. PhARMA was no longer required to provide when effectiveness had been established the drugs free of charge to any trial participant who wanted then. Those rules had been in place to protect clinical trial participants. These were critical changes in the trial rules and relieved the sponsors of the clinical trial of almost any liability and responsibilities other than providing the product being tested and collecting the researchers’ data. TAG was desperate, as most of their members were either HIV+ or had full blown AIDS. It was a time when people were dropping dead daily.
The Center for Disease Control, rather than compromising, caved in on all their legitimate safety issues in place that TAG, with the support of PhARMA, demanded be changed. This resulted in TAG members and their doctors having fast track access to still experimental drugs; drugs without data on dosage and documented side effects. While this access did in fact prolong some people’s lives, it also caused deaths because of lack of information regarding dosage levels and interactions. This was particularly true with the drug DDI. Some celebrity members of ACT UP who through their TAG connections got access to the trial drugs died quickly.
All of this is left out of PLAGUE, except for a vague reference to final questioning on how to fast-track unproven drugs. As well as a throwaway line about all political organizations having at some point problems internally, this shocking lack of respect for facts and context is what ultimately makes PLAGUE a well crafted fairytale and a dishonest documentary.
France choose two men from ACT UP to focus his story telling. The charismatic Bob Rafsky, who came out in his thirties, responsibly left a marriage and a child and became sick with AIDS. Rafsky was not a member of TAG. He did not leave ACT UP. Rafsky, in many ways, was the public voice of anger in ACT UP as he knew he was dying covered with KS lesions. Angry and articulate, Bob Rafsky was fearless even when weak and wasting away. Standing up to Bill Clinton was no easy task, but Rafsky did, as seen in both documentaries.
The other was the very photogenic ex-Wall Street whiz kid, Peter Staley, who after his diagnosis mid-80s with AIDS, lost his job. He filed one of the first lawsuits claiming AIDS discrimination and won a high six figure settlement. Staley was one of the few people with AIDS in ACT UP that had that kind of money. He had also been one of stars in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis safe sex videos which Jesse Helms had attacked on the Senate Floor. He even became entrepreneurial as an activist and set up a profitable mail order AIDS drug delivery service.
Staley was the activist chosen by the International AIDS Conference, in 1989, in Montreal, to be the voice of AIDS activism. He hobnobbed with the likes of David Geffin, Elizabeth Taylor and Dr. Matilda Krim. After the release of protease inhibitors, Staley, like many other HIV+ men for whom the new drugs actually worked (about 50 % of those who had been on the drug trail previously), was given an extension on life. Yet, he fell into the sinkhole of crystal meth addiction like so many other gay HIV + men. Staley years later finally cleaned up and to his credit devised a crystal meth educational campaign targeting gay meth addicts.
Only his Montreal speech is referenced in France’s PLAGUE. These are some examples of the critical information left out by France to advance his story telling. Seductive in craft, PLAGUE in fact is not an honest documentary. France’s shocking lack of respect for facts and context is what ultimately makes PLAGUE a well crafted fairytale and a dishonest documentary. Rather than presenting the complicated construction of the emblematic, history-changing, crucial AIDS activist group.
ACT UP deserves better, as does TAG. Today Larry Kramer can be heard saying TAG’s success killed ACT UP.
UNITED IN ANGER: THE AIDS HISTORY PROJECT
Director: Jim Hubbard
Experimental film maker, Jim Hubbard, with author/playwright/academic, Sarah Schulman, created the Ford Foundation funded ACT UP Oral History project and has to date, filmed close to 150 oral histories of women and men active in ACTUP-NY and other chapters. Fortunately, they were able to speak with some of the members who are now AIDS death statistics like film editor, Jim Lyons, and artist/activist, Ray Navarro. Hubbard used not only his own shot film fooTAGe, but also incorporated fooTAGe fron a variety of sources including ACT UP-NY’s own media collectives including DIVA TV.
Relying on the visual aspect of film to tell the history of ACTUP- NY, he roots UNITED IN ANGER in collectively documenting the successful media-grabbing ACT UP actions. These include the re-creation of the YIPPIE stock market action, the invasion of the nightly CBS news with Dan Rather, the mammoth national action at the FDA headquarters, the ACT UP women-led prime time baseball game “No glove, No love” Yankee stadium surprise, the controversial St Patrick’s Mass die-in, the White House mass burial and ashes delivery protest. What one sees in this fooTAGe and that of actual ACT UP meetings, as well as road trips to the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco and Montreal, is the diversity of people attracted to ACT UP and the strong role of women of all ages in ACT UP that is lacking in David France’s PLAGUE.
Hubbard succeeds in capturing the dynamics of the ACT UP general membership meetings and the group dynamic of consensus, building on issues and tactics and their implementation through the collectivity of affinity groups. Furthermore, most importantly in the darkest moments of AIDS, how direct action was both empowering and, yes, fun and oddly life reinforcing. This is a lesson in action for today’s Occupy movements.
The weakest part of UNITED IN ANGER is the talking heads who are, in most cases, redundant to what we actually see visually and some are odd choices given the depth of interviews he had access to in the oral history project he had shot. Their introduction breaks the cinematic rhythm of image motion capturing the collective outrage and empowering response to government ignorance and denial. I suspect the rush to completion with PLAGUE, already finished, dictated some of these more conventional choices.
Hubbard has created in tone, a more authentic documentation of what ACT UP actually was and how it can be a role model for future activists than the slick and easily accessible film France has created.
While each film attempts to confront the cumulative effect of the AIDS deaths of friends and lovers in ACT UP, the loss and the effects of collective grief is subtext for the most part in their story telling.
David Weissman’s WE WERE HERE, which documents how the San Francisco lesbian and gay community came together to take care of their sick and dying and build an AIDS response which included ACT UP San Francisoco, ACT UP Golden Gate and ACT UP East Bay, succeeds where both UNITED IN ANGER and HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE fail. by concentrating on the personal human toll and redemption rather than just collective anger or TAG-like power brokering.
UNITED IN ANGER is emotionally closer and works in tandem with WE WERE HERE, while PLAGUE, in France’s construction, despite the Bob Rafsky story, builds a myth that is not authentic in the way the other two are and on the deepest level, PLAGUE rings hallow.
I hope there will be more documentaries on ACT UP‘s impact globally and as a template for today’s political movements. Perhaps a less subjective reading can come from more experienced documentary film makers like Alex Gibney, Arthur Dong and Lesli Kleinberg. The full story of ACT UP and its impact on saving lives, challenging government, the greed of PhARMA and the political expediency of elected officials is still a loadstone for further documentaries. This is in addition to what happened to ACT UP members still alive and the AIDS activists community at large, including those who looked to alternative explanations of the cause and treatment of bodies out of balance, are still ripe for documentary discovery.
(cc) jim fouratt REEL DEAL MOVIES April 2012