Backlot Bitch: The AIDS Crisis As Told By Two Recent Documentaries

You could say the very first lights and shadows committed to film were documentaries. Workers exiting the factory , a train whirring by the station, , or a kiss forever playing past its Broadway run. While documentaries have operated mostly outside of the Hollywood system, a new heyday of doc filmmaking began in the 1980s and ’90s, when VHS recorders and cassettes entered the market and lowered the cost of recording. It was the birth of the home-movie movement, among other things. A still photo from We Were Here of a gay couple kissing next to a straight couple who are avoiding looking at them.

But something was very wrong at the beginning of the 1980s. In big city hospitals, healthy young men died after bouts of pneumonia or from an unusual form of cancer known as Karposi’s sarcoma. Frightened friends, partners, and family members turned their cameras on to record their loved ones before the illness could claim them. What they didn’t realize is that they were documenting the history of an epidemic. Two recent documentaries have successfully captured the lives of patients, the activism that developed from tragedy, and the legacy still evident in the health research and improved prognosis for those still living with the disease known as HIV/AIDS.

David Weissman’s We Were Here is by far the most personal of the two documentaries, chronologically following the lives of five San Franciscans. The disease is not so much the focus of the movie as is the social toll it took on the lively districts around the Castro and Haight-Ashbury. The film begins in the years leading up to the AIDS crisis and the wayward youths looking for acceptance who sought out these neighborhoods as a haven. But soon, the narrative takes a dark turn. A lover is diagnosed with an unheard of illness, regular customers seem to disappear, and obituaries grow by the dozens each week. For a community fresh from organizing behind politician Harvey Milk a few years before, many returned to their activist roots and volunteered support for their community. Ultimately, the movie is about a community that came together in the face of a crisis.

We Were Here does not move behind the scope of San Francisco, which I considered a benefit. It allows the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the story. Of the five main contributors, one is a female nurse engaged in advocacy and another was a person of color who ran a corner flower stand near the Castro. Many of the critiques I have read of earlier AIDS documentaries took issues with the fact that they focused exclusively on gay men, almost completely ignoring the women and people of color who died from the illness or lacked resources for medication. We Were Here was sure to share screen time among the five contributors and featured archival footage of support groups for women and communities of color. There were many sighs and stifled sobs during the screening I attended as the stories’ mood changed from nostalgia to shock to despair.

Cover of the movie How to Survive a Plague with a sign that reads Treatment or Riot.

The next documentary also garnered the same audience response. How to Survive a Plague picks up around the same time, at the start of the 1980s, when an unknown illness began to claim lives in New York City. With every passing year, the screen would bring up a counter of the total number of fatalities from AIDS at that point. I thought it was odd, seeing as the rest of the documentary mostly featured a chronological account of a few of the activists at ACT UP, the largest advocacy group for AIDS in the United States.

Most of the footage is from amateur filmmakers or activists looking to record an account of meetings and protests. There are personal glimpses into the home lives of activists that left many in my theater wiping their tears on their coat sleeve. The film goes further into how the disease works, the anguish of researchers looking for a cure, and the organization it took for advocates to educate themselves in order to understand the medical literature that was being written about the disease. It’s a great study into the art of peaceful protest, as several anti-gay entities were met by protesters lying outside (or inside) their business, government office, or church. Police brutality abounds throughout the film, but no surprise there as similar cases occurred during the Occupy protests. Indeed, it is more of a propaganda film, showing the viewer how activism was done before and how they can join the movement by following a link at the end of a film (author’s note: I label any film that motivates its viewer to take up a cause as “propaganda,” since its goal is to outline an agenda and call citizens to action. It’s not to say it is good or bad, but that it is inherently different from a documentary film that merely captures a subject in its time and place).

Have you seen other documentaries about AIDS that fellow Bitch readers should know about? Share your recommendations in the comments below!

by Monica Castillo
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Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Silverlake Life: The View from Here

As it happens,, I just watched the 1993 documentary "Silverlake Life", in which filmmaker Tom Joslin chronicled his own dying of AIDS (as well as that of his partner Mark Massi. By design it's a very personal view on AIDS and utterly heartbreaking. Also included was an update 10 years later, which gave a little bit more background.

I hope I can catch "We Were Here" somewhere!

United in Anger

I haven't seen it yet, but I've been hearing good things! It bills itself as "a unique feature-length documentary that combines startling archival footage that puts the audience on the ground with the activists and the remarkably insightful interviews from the ACT UP Oral History Project to explore ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) from a grassroots perspective" ( Unfortunately, it's only being shown in a few cities and at festivals right now, but hopefully it'll be available online or on DVD in the not-so-distant future.

More docs!

Thanks for the recommendations. @ Evamaria "We Were Here" is now available on Netflix streaming if you have it. :)

Thanks! Sadly I'm not in the

Thanks! Sadly I'm not in the US, but will keep my eyes open...

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