History As We Make It: Variances in Recent AIDS Documentaries
The history of the AIDS epidemic, specifically the period between 1981 and 1992, when the first drug cocktails were created to combat HIV, can often be very blurry to people in the present. This is partially because of the massive conservative attempt to cover up the disease during its height, and partially because most of the people infected by it during this period have died. As a result, there seems to be relatively little mainstream recorded history of what really was a plague. However, recently, documentary filmmakers have started churning out films on this era at a staggering pace. In 2011, David Weissman released his documentary We Were Here, the first documentary to address the AIDS crisis in San Francisco and one of the first critically successful, widespread films retrospecting on the era. After that film, a slew of documentaries about ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and various regional representations of AIDS were released, most prominently led by David France’s How to Survive a Plague.
These documentaries have helped to shed light on what was really the equivalent of the dark era in gay America. However, when watching them, several things become apparent. Documentaries position themselves as more truthful than standard films, but the key word there is more. When viewed altogether, it becomes clear that these AIDS films all bring very different things to the table. It also becomes apparent that these films are not just documenting activism, but they’re doing a sort of activism themselves. Finally, because they are now positioned as some of the primary windows into this era of American history, the effect they have on deciding the history needs to be addressed, including which things they decide to legitimize through portrayal, and which things they decide to erase through exclusion.
One of the most noticeable areas of differences between these two films is the general attitude toward the crisis that people on either coast were expressing, and the tone that the films have chosen to take. New York, obviously and rightfully highlighted for being the base of ACT UP, and generally following from the cut throat Northeastern persona, is represented by people who simply would not accept no. Their response to the crisis was to become angry, to demand more, and to do whatever it took to make things better. As How To Survive a Plague primarily follows ACT UP, or more accurately, the splintering of TAG (Treatment Action Group) from the broader ACT UP collective, the characters and settings are primarily based in New York City. Beyond that, Plague uses a large amount of footage from video activists during the AIDS crisis, much of which is technically primitive and/or intentionally aggressive. As Chris Beyrer explains, “The film is a history, a work of frontline reportage, and also something of a meditation, as the men and women who survived until the advent of effective therapy in 1996 look back on their struggles, losses, and victories” (Lancet). While the work does a lot of work recording history and looking at the personal reflection of its interviewees, it is also undeniably calling on the frontline of activism from the likes of DIVA TV, and the hundreds of independent ACT UP members who just happened to own a camera. It creates an atmosphere of action, as if the viewer was right there in the thick of these protests. Protests, by the way, being the bulk of the footage within the film.
We Were Here, on the other hand, seems to rebuke most of that frontline activism. Instead, the San Francisco-based film focuses on five individuals’ very personal stories about how the disease affected their lives. While there is a constant threat of death in Plague, death is more of a looming, all-consuming specter in We Were Here. It is made very clear, through the inclusion of a nurse, a volunteer who comforted sick men, a florist who provided flowers for funerals, and an artist who watched as all of his friends and lovers died around him, that the overwhelming idea, motif, and theme of this film and this era was death. The archival elements of this film are primarily photographs and obituary pages that portray just a complete saturation of life with death. But I think Beyrer points out the real purpose behind all of this death in his article A Requiem for the Fallen… when he says, “The stories they have to tell are harrowing, and the images we see of beautiful young men reduced to wraiths, have lost none of their power with time. But if there is one central theme linking these utterly human and vivid accounts, it is resilience.” And that’s really the most striking difference between these two films. Where Plague attempts to inspire a sense of activism and anger in the community, We Were Here tries to paint a tale of humanity, sorrow, and ultimately resilience within the community. It’s about the collective fight, or it’s about the personal struggles.
This extends to the type of conflicts that each film uses to propel their respective narratives. As Simon Watney explains, that period of time was covered in this kind of massive cloud of misinformation, and it was very threatening to the people suffering from HIV. Both films express the difficulty of not knowing, and how that needed to be dealt with. “…A “knowledge” of AIDS has been uniformly constituted across the boundaries of formal and informal information, accurately duplicating the contours of other, previous “knowledges”” (Watney). He goes on to explain the kind of moral/activist crux of the conflict between AIDS activists and the general public, that
“… This “truth” of AIDS also resolutely insists that the point of emergence of the virus should be identified as its cause. Epidemiology is thus replaced by a moral etiology of disease that can only conceive homosexual desire within a medicalized metaphor of contagion… Reading AIDS as the outward and visible sign of an imagined depravity of will… Moreover, this rhetoric of AIDS incites a violent siege mentality in the “morally well…” (Watney)
Placing itself as close as possible to ground level during the height of the crisis, How to Survive a Plague largely follows the plot idea of, ‘well, how are we going to survive?’ As such, it deals with the kind of internal workings and worries about actions and information during the period. It ostensibly portrays a community effort against the moralizing right that is covering up, denying, and ignoring information that will improve mortality rates of AIDS patients. The overarching conflict is very clearly between the medically oriented members of ACT UP and the federal policies that are slowing down drug testings and ultimately allowing hundreds of thousands of people to die of AIDS while they wait. However, there is a more nuanced conflict that begins to arise about halfway through the film, when it becomes apparent that the people primarily profiled in the film are becoming perceived as kind of an elitist bourgeoisie, that is not properly taking into account the needs and desires of people who are marginalized even within the queer AIDS activist community. Of course, the film takes the side of the interviewees, who mostly later went on to form TAG, but the inclusion of these kind of internally divisive moments really drives the dramatic tension in the second half of the film, and the question of survival seems to shift from individual lives to the survival of the activist organization and community that had once been the only thing blooming in this blight. As Andrew Holleran points out, “ACT UP was always a collective, so egalitarian it became a problem… Eventually, like the people who stormed the Bastille, ACT UP devoured its own.”
We Were Here on the other hand, reverses that script. Interpersonal conflicts within the gay community are alluded to as a thing that happened before, a thing that happened while people had the luxury of caring about interpersonal conflicts, not a thing that happened in the middle of a plague. Instead, the movie mostly divorces itself from the more medically derived aspects of the disease and focuses primarily on the social toll that it was having. That people were losing friends, that they were losing massive amounts of money in treatment and aftermath, and learning to cope after it decimated the population. It is a storyline similar to Paula Treichler’s argument about the nature of AIDS as a social problem, “Science is not the true material generating our merely symbolic superstructure. Our social constructions of AIDS… are based not on objective, scientifically determined “reality” but on what we are told about this reality.” While portions of this film do address the desire and involvement of the interviewees to advance AIDS medicine by taking part in trials and the community organizer that is interviewed periodically brings into the picture ideas about ACT UP- San Francisco and its affiliates, those elements appear to be happening around the clearly more central theme of emotional survival. The fight here is all retrospective, and so it seems to be more about survivor’s guilt and the kind of picking up the pieces that everyone had to do when they felt as if they had finally made it through the plague and come out on the other end.
The dichotomous breakdown of AIDS documentaries into personal and political creates a real tension between the history and the way people would like to believe it. Because they both chose not only to focus on specific events and regions within a crisis that affected an entire country on every level of society, but because they chose to streamline their source material in specific ways and pinpoint their themes and tones to very specific feelings, neither film seems to really give a complete or even accurate account of the history of AIDS. Positioned against each other, it becomes clear that How To Survive a Plague is not only ignoring many of the social effects of AIDS, but even ignoring many of the efforts and effects of ACT UP, refining it down into only the most explicitly healthcare related issues. Equally, it becomes clear that We Were Here’s nominal inclusion of the lovey dovey activism of the AIDS Quilt, is such a minute picture of the larger activism work that was going on in the Bay Area and throughout the West Coast. For example, in one of these films, Peter Staley is shown addressing the International AIDS Conference in 1990 in San Francisco, but it’s not the one that is set in San Francisco, because that aspect of the crisis was divorced from the personal stories that We Were Here was trying to focus on. And so, there appears to be two major lessons here. The first is that the real reach of this plague, and all the many facets of life that it affected, was enormous, far too large to ever expect to capture within a single film. The other is that these documentaries, while they include archival footage, images and testimonies, are not the archives themselves. They are the product of filtered lenses looking through the archives to create a storyline relevant to the director. It’s important to keep those two things separate.
Beyrer, Chris. “A requiem for the fallen from the early days of AIDS.” The Lancet. Volume 378, Issue 9803, 5–11 November 2011, Pages 1619.
Beyrer, Chris. “ACT UP!: a history in film.” The Lancet. Volume 380, Issue 9839, 28 July–3 August 2012. Pages 329.
Holleran, Andrew. “The Lazarus Effect.” The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. ISSN: 1532-1118; Volume 20; Issue 1, 1 January 2013.
How To Survive a Plague. Dir. David France. IFC, 2012.
Treichler, Paula. How To Have Theory In an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. 11-41.
Watney, Simon. The Spectacle of AIDS.
We Were Here. Dirs. David Weissman and Bill Weber. Red Flag Releasing, 2011.