How I See "How To Survive a Plague"
I’m about to write some critical things about the documentary “How To Survive a Plague,” but I want to clarify in advance that I feel tremendous solidarity with the filmmakers, and I am thankful for their accomplishment, both in crafting a beautiful film, and in successfully raising awareness about the history of AIDS. Those of us on a mission to canonize the authentic history of the early AIDS crisis face so many obstacles, but, like ACT UP, we are strongest when we work in coalition - when we amplify each other’s strengths. And I hope we are stronger still when we respectfully critique each other’s missteps.
In my understanding of history — through talking with ACT UP veterans, reviewing raw archival footage, and watching hours of interviews from the ACT UP Oral History Project — ACT UP was most remarkable, most inspiring, in its inter-connectedness. The take-away, as I reflect on this history, is how incredible it was that such a diverse group of people could unite in common cause, and lend their wide-ranging talents, backgrounds and expertise to their joint struggle — that people from the feminist and antiwar activist movements could suddenly have the power of the male media elite behind their efforts, and that previously apolitical, closeted white gay men could learn civil disobedience and direct action tactics. ACT UP changed the world — in my understanding — through this vast, complex, interconnected web of skill-sharing and simultaneity.
In this light, I’m troubled that “How To Survive a Plague” — a film that seems to have the momentum to become canonical — paints such a different picture. While the film sets itself up, early on, as a documentary about ACT UP, it focuses on the Treatment Action Group (TAG) — a vitally important and ultimately heroic off-shoot of ACT UP that operated within the government and the drug companies, even as ACT UP agitated from without. The film is very clear about its hero — Peter Staley, a sexy, closeted white bond trader who, after being diagnosed with AIDS, quits his job and becomes a full-time activist. The film’s journey is his journey. When he leaves ACT UP, the film follows him. In the climactic moment of a very emotional and dramatic movie, the audience discovers that Peter, though previously skeptical about his chances of living a long life, has in fact survived AIDS, and is still alive today. The very clear implication is that THIS is “how to survive a plague.” You want to survive a plague? Do what this man did.
I’ve spent the past three years saturated in stories about ACT UP, and I have never heard history told this way. I have heard about a diverse group of heroes, each performing their own, crucial role. The women and people of color were not supporting characters in the stories I’ve heard. They did not fill out the b-roll during voice-overs by white male protagonists. The lesbian feminists who taught white men about direct action had names, faces and voices. The role of hero was shared. Protagonism was collective.
And so my quarrel is not with what this film says, it’s with what it doesn’t say. Because I agree with its claims: Peter Staley IS a hero. Mark Harrington and Bob Rafsky ARE heroes. As a student of these events, and as member of a younger gay generation, I owe these men my LIFE, and I was THRILLED to see them valorized in celluloid. I wept with relief at the notion that future generations will have access to these role models. But I reject a telling of this history that doesn’t also valorize and canonize people like Ortez Alderson, Maxine Wolf and all of the women and people of color who made ACT UP what it was, and created the context through which TAG could do its own heroic work. I reject a telling of this history that treats the advent of protease inhibitor cocktails as an endgame, without properly celebrating the collective efforts that produced them. And I reject a history of ACT UP that doesn’t see what ACT UP saw — that the problems of the AIDS crisis exposed the greater problems of American society — racism, homophobia, poverty, lack of affordable health care…
The AIDS crisis was allowed to happen because society saw some lives as more important than others. The lesson of the AIDS crisis then must be that all lives have equal value. And so, in a world where sexism and racism are still entrenched, to tell the story of AIDS activism and focus only on white men is to miss the point of that activism entirely.
It’s worth noting that, while “How To Survive a Plague” ends happily, ACT UP still exists. And if you ask any of its members why it exists, you will see how the original social ills critiqued by ACT UP remain unsolved.
Because the story of ACT UP, as I understand it, is not a conventional superhero story. It’s much, much more complicated.
And so, while there is so much merit in this film — so many stunning moments and such virtue of intent and purpose — I walked out of the theater thankful that Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman produced “United in Anger,” a documentary about ACT UP that examines the movement as a whole, that doesn’t privilege the stories of white men over others, and that situates the history of AIDS in a bigger, more complicated, more problematic world. (The real world.) If you’re interested in the ins and outs of TAG’s successful lobbying for protease inhibitors, you should definitely see “How to Survive a Plague.” But if you want to learn about ACT UP, watch “United in Anger.”
Docs in Theaters: "China Heavyweight" and "United in Anger"
Upward mobility is the theme this week for new theatrical releases in documentary. One film is about Chinese youth trying to rise in notoriety through rigorous sport in a nation experiencing tremendous change, and the other film is about AIDS-infected Americans trying to raise social awareness through rigorous activism in a nation experiencing tremendous fear. I’ve only seen the former, which I definitely recommend.
Then there’s also the Katy Perry movie, which I included in last week’s Docs in Theaters post because it opened on Thursday. I guess that involves some upward mobility as well. Other theatrical releases of note include Morgan Spurlock’s Comic-Con doc, which is back in a few locations possibly in advance of the annual event next weekend, and the Marina Abramovic film, which remains quite present in cinemas in spite of having premiered on HBO the other day.
Film festivals featuring docs going on this week include: Dokufest [7/7-7/15]; Karlovy Vary [6/29-7/7]; Downtown LA [7/6-7/13]; Outfest - LA LGBT [7/12-7/22]; CBGB [7/5-7/8]; Asian Film Festival of Dallas [7/12-7/19]; Rochester Jewish [7/8-7/16]; Jerusalem [7/5-7/14]; Frame Out [7/6-8/25]; and Imagenation Outdoors.
Here are your two new theatrical releases followed by the weekly list of docs still in cinemas:
This look at young boxing hopefuls is another stunning visit to the Middle Kingdom during a time of great economic and cultural transition from Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang, director of Up the Yangtze. Also on board, as producer, is Last Train Home director (and Up the Yangtze associate producer) Lixin Fan. But the most important name this time around is Shaoguang Sun, a cameraman on Last Train Home who here has been promoted to official DP.
And that promotion is very well deserved. If we’re starting betting on the 2013 Cinema Eye Honors, my money’s on this for the award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography. It’s probably the most visually striking doc, if not the most blunt in subject matter. Not that I wasn’t fascinated by the subtle significance of a tale of Chinese attempting an American-ish Dream involving a very western sport.
Winner of a Special Jury Prize for Best Cinematography in a Documentary at the 2012 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Recommended if you like: Hoop Dreams; Last Train Home; On the Ropes
Now playing at the IFC Center in NYC. The film hits Texas starting Thursday for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. For upcoming openings and screenings in other locations, check the film’s playdates page.
Screening "United in Anger" in a media class
- FILM: Tens of thousands of people died of AIDS in the streets and in dirty hallways because nobody cared.
- STUDENTS: UGH BORING.
- FILM: One time they yelled about it during a church service.
- STUDENTS: *tears streaming down face* I'm really offended and upset as a Catholic, I don't know what to say. How could they do that.