“In absence of adequate healthcare, we have learned to be our own clinicians, researchers, lobbyists, drug smugglers, pharmacists… We have our own libraries, newspapers, drug stores and laboratories…”
The ongoing argument about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in America seems to mainly focus on one crucial premise: Should the wider population be forced to accommodate the healthcare costs of a minority? Proponents of the law claim that by spreading the cost of coverage around then the overall economic benefits from having a healthy population will outweigh the costs. Critics of the law claim that it is overreaching (to the point of tyrannical) and that individuals should look after themselves. This split is mainly drawn down political lines, with Republicans on one side (against) and Democrats on the other (for). The question of coverage is not necessarily focused on specific aliments and conditions.
Imagine how divisive the argument gets then when (so called) morality is included in the equation. In the AIDS epidemic of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, one group of people (the mostly gay minority) insisted that more action was taken to prevent a specific disease from spreading; and the other group of people, mostly religious conservatives, wanted to prevent the disease by eradicating ‘sinful’ behaviour. The argument is essentially the same though; the right-wingers want to combat a disease by enforcing responsibility on the individual, whereas the left-wingers want to encourage collective action to help a disadvantaged minority.
David France’s documentary tells the powerful story of how a group of HIV positive and People With AIDS (PWA’s) managed to vocalise the issue during local and presidential election campaigns, as well as pressure pharmaceutical companies to change the testing period for new drugs. The film starts in Greenwich Village, the epicenter of the epidemic in 1987, and move through to 1996 with the successful complimentary trials of drugs that have managed to suppress the disease. Along the way it intercuts home movies and underground activism with protest movement footage and talking heads of a group of activists telling their story.
The filmmaking features familiar aesthetics of queer cinema, such as men in leather jackets giving monologues with cigarettes, and street activism with 8mm and lens flare (I guess they need to be seen to be recognized) – the film also highlights something that I’ve thought about the gay movement for years: they are aggressively democratic and they have the best slogans… It also a documentary in the truest sense as it is comprised primarily of amateur footage documenting the era, and it serves itself as an important historical document highlighting the inaction of Reagan and Bush Snr. on this issue.
Unfortunately, the film is also an allegory of one of the problem with left wing movements. The beginning half an hour has lots of footage of underground meetings culminating in non-violent protests and slogan politics. The protests are thoughtful and are curated by straw polls and discussion in order to achieve aims and objectives, yet as the film progresses chronologically the meetings get more angry and disorganized. Much effort is made to not lionize a leader of group of elites, exactly like during the Occupy movement, that in the end there is a lack of structure that stifles progress.
Much of the film incites anger at the lack of action from the government at the time (Reagan himself never used the word ‘AIDS’ in his entire two terms), and the story highlights an important turning point in gay rights. However, it is unfortunate that the film is released during the middle of the Obamacare application rhetoric as a film that shows the importance of healthcare for a minority and the power of individuals asking for governmental overreach instead of corporations is only going to appeal to one side of the debate. Another documentary that regrettably will perhaps only preach to the converted…
How To Survive A Plague is available on DVD from Amazon from 31st March 2014