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Knight at the Movies: How to Survive a Plague; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-09-19

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On March 24, 1987, a group of ragtag gay men and women and their supporters took to the streets in New York City. They'd waited long enough for action from their mayor, Ed Koch, about the scourge of AIDS on their community. After years of dismissal on both a local and national level by scientists, politicians, and society at large, this group that came together under the moniker ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) no longer had time to wait.

Many of them were already too sick—too near the inevitable death that a positive diagnosis of HIV meant at the time, to do anything other than throw caution to the wind. They were mad as hell and out to show the world that they would not be stopped until progress on the insidious disease was well underway. Not only were they pissed, but they brought along cameras to document their protest.

It was those video cameras, a relatively new technological advance, that made all the difference in how the world would come to perceive the tactics that made ACT UP world-renowned. And David France, then a freelance journalist for the gay media in Manhattan and soon a writer for several mainstream national publications, was there on the front lines and saw those video cameras wielded at every protest march, every "zap"—the highly charged staged events that quickly caught the imagination of the U.S. press.

France has been writing about AIDS ever since and, a few years back, he began pouring through video archives tracking down the footage he saw being shot. Piecing together excerpts from hundreds of rare tapes, he has crafted a searing, enthralling documentary experience called How to Survive a Plague that is playing exclusively at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., beginning this Friday.

The outrageous strategies ACT UP used to get attention to the cause of finding a cure for AIDS—or at least drugs to help sufferers deal with it and slow its track—are detailed and we meet several of the group's prominent leaders and watch hundreds, sometimes thousands, gather at the carefully staged protests. France begins by reminding the viewer about the hideous cost the disease had on the bodies of its young victims with emotionally heart-wrenching footage. But the medical profession offered no hope—drug companies systematically spent years in drug trials before even attempting to bring new drugs before the FDA for approval; and politicians decried the gay lifestyle on the floor of the Senate, with the homophobic Jesse Helms the leader of this bigoted pack. Calls to brand gays and round us up into internment camps were common occurrences. Funding was non-existent, and prejudice was widespread and tolerated.

But from the start, ACT UP—which included experts from the worlds of media and advertising among its ranks—knew how to make headlines and keep up the pressure. As France documents, editing together the vintage footage, remembrance videos with leaders of the movement (including ACT UP co-founder Larry Kramer) and a timeline of events, the relatively small group had astonishing results. The film also highlights a batch of hitherto unsung heroes—like retired chemist Iris Long, who showed up at an ACT UP meeting and began to instruct the group how to approach Big Medicine and its scientists to actually speed the release of drugs that showed promise. We see ACT UP members taking on the Catholic Church and then President George Bush, wrapping Helms' home in a giant condom and, most movingly, tossing the ashes of their dead loved ones onto the White House lawn.

Always, the anger inherent in the group is front and center, just ahead of the pain, terror and sadness. And the anger we vividly see, often turned in on itself (one of the film's highlights comes during a particularly fractious meeting at which Kramer silences everyone by repeatedly shouting "plague!" stunning all into profound silence). The movie stays focused on ACT UP's efforts to work with the scientists and eventually the politicians to foment change. Once in a while a home video of one of the group's spokespersons, Bob Rafsky, interacting with his young daughter and ex-wife is interspersed. It's a canny choice as the angry, articulate Rafsky who showed no fear in confronting anyone—including President Clinton—about the seriousness of ACT UP's mission is shown to have had a softer, more vulnerable side. This, we immediately intuit, was the story of every one of these brave comrades who shunted aside personal tragedies then and in their immediate future, to try and make a difference for everyone in our community.

France's film is more than just one any angry protest after another, though, and there's a lot more here than just a dry history lesson. The story of what the group accomplished is beautifully inspiring and, obviously, is also a great cautionary tale. Further, How to Survive a Plague offers a convincing argument that ACT UP spearheaded a major shift in this country's perception and treatment of its gay population—something equivalent to the civil-rights movement. Once the protease inhibitors were introduced in the mid-'90s, turning the virus into something resembling a manageable though chronic medical condition, the activists found their influence quickly fading. But what ACT UP accomplished and the power of the signature chant of the group has never waned and instantly brings back the plague years: "Act up. Fight back. Fight AIDS." www.survivetheplague.com

Film notes:

—When Mosquita meets pretty new neighbor Mari, the two don't exactly hit it off; however, animosity soon turns to friendship and then to something much deeper in director Aurora Guerror's acclaimed lesbian romantic drama Mosquita y Mari. The film, a hit at last year's Sundance, is having its Midwest premiere Wed., Sept. 26 at the Logan Square Theater, 2646 N. Milwaukee Ave., at 8 p.m.

The screening will begin with a documentary titled Gay Latino L.A.: Coming of Age that centers on three young gay men. The Queer Film Society is hosting the event and I'll be conducting the audience talk-back following the screening. A post -ilm cocktail reception follows at 9:30 p.m. Mosquita y Mari is just one of a host of films scheduled to be shown as part of the Mexican Film Festival of the Americas that is running Sept. 20-28 at the Logan Square Theater.

A host of Mexican film stars, including 2011 Best Actor Oscar nominee Damien Bechir, will attend the festival and its slew of special events, which is Jesse Rodriguez is curating. Complete festival information is at www.mexicanfilmfestival.org .

—Recent DVDs worth noting: A lesbian romantic drama, The Guest House (Wolfe Video), is now available and offers a passel of sensual love scenes and a gorgeous cast of pretty young things and may just be the lesbian guilty pleasure of the year. Virginia—starring Jennifer Connelly, Toby Jones, Emma Roberts and Ed Harris, with a script and direction by gay rights activist and Oscar winner (for his Milk script) Dustin Lance Black—is based on Black's own relationship with his troubled single mother and growing up Mormon. Veering from quirky to melodramatic, the tone of the movie doesn't quite jell, but a strong cast (especially Connelly as the mentally challenged mother) helps tip the scales in its favor.

Weekend, my favorite queer movie of 2011, gets the deluxe treatment from Criterion on Blu-ray with its usual slew of extras that drive cinephiles into a frenzy. Pretty much everything you wanted to know about the making of Andrew Haigh's beautifully observed (and often quite sexy) story of two average Joes who go from tricking to falling in love in a matter of days is packed into the Criterion's special edition.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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