This World AIDS Day marks 28 years of raising awareness for people with HIV.
Bill Clinton became the first president to commemorate and recognize the event in 1995. By that time, hundreds of thousands of Americans had died from AIDS-related complications, and thousands more struggled to afford proper treatment and care. To honor those men and women we have lost, and the ongoing struggle to defeat the virus, we assembled this list of documentary films dealing in a moving way with the subject. Some focus on the epidemic at large, while others revolve around personal stories.
Either way, the films listed here go a long way toward educating viewers on the human cost of HIV/AIDS, and offer a fine way to commemorate World AIDS Day…
1. How to Survive a Plague
Journalist David France made a hell of a directorial debut with the Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague, his documentary tracing the rise of HIV activism. Featuring extensive footage of activists like Peter Staley, the dearly departed Spencer Cox and playwright Larry Kramer, who delivers one of the most visceral and shocking moments ever in a documentary. Right wing bozo politicians like Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Jesse Helms also appear, effectively saying HIV/AIDS is punishment for vile behavior. Seldom has a film—documentary or otherwise—so uncovered the horrors of the disease, the inaction of the federal government or provided such a haunting memorial to the victims of AIDS.
Vito Russo loved movies, and spent his adult years compiling the first ever survey and chronicle of LGBT characters and images in cinema. The Celluloid Closet revolutionized LGBTQ studies, and director Jeffery Schwartz provides a fitting portrait of Russo in his aptly-titled documentary Vito. Russo contracted HIV in 1985, and a good portion of Vito deals with Russo trying to work as the disease wears on his body and mind, as it does on his longtime boyfriend Jeffery Sevcik. Not an HIV documentary per se, Vito nevertheless personalizes the toll and effect of AIDS in the 1980s, and offers a portrait of a man unbowed in the face of his own impending death.
3. Desert Migration
At the height of the AIDS crisis, a number of gay men began a sort of sojourn to the desert sands of Palm Springs, CA in search of medical care, and a comfortable place to die. What they found instead, according to Daniel Cardone’s documentary Desert Migration, was a much-needed sense of community. Life took an even more unexpected turn with the coming of effective HIV treatments in the mid 1990s. What had begun as an almost Biblical journey into the wilderness at once became a residence in a promised land. Cardone’ examines the aging population of HIV+ men in Palm Springs, and how men once resigned to die struggle to find new purpose in an open-ended life. Desert Migration smashes the easy resolution so many other films dealing with the subject of HIV rely upon. Survival isn’t enough: people need to find a way to keep living.
4. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
In the late 1980s, the AIDS quilt became a symbol of the rising death toll HIV took on the American population. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, directed by queer documentary lions Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman (of Party Monster and The Eyes of Tammy Faye fame), examines five of the lives that inspired panels to the 48,000 section memorial quilt. Among them, Vito Russo discusses the life of his deceased boyfriend Jeffery Sevick; David and Suzi Mandell speak about their hemophiliac son David Jr. who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion and Sallie Perryman tells the story of her late husband Robert, who contracted HIV through drug use. The film expands the scope of the AIDS epidemic beyond the LGBTQ community which often carries the brunt of the stigma. Released in 1989, Common Threads hearkens to a time before proper treatment reduced HIV to chronic, largely symptomless illness, rather than a deadly one. In that way, the film encapsulates the dark fears of the ongoing crisis…and the sparks of hope that helped keep the search for a cure.
5. Fire in the Blood
The issue of medical care and treatment remain at the forefront of headlines, as Barack Obama staked much of his legacy on healthcare reform, and Donald Trump ran a campaign on undoing Obamacare reforms. Fire in the Blood spotlights the issue, specifically the blocking of HIV-fighting drugs from reaching low-income regions of the United States, and from ending the ongoing HIV crisis in Africa. Director Dylan Mohan Gray enlists the participation of Oscar-winner William Hurt to narrate, while Desmond Tutu, Peter Rost, and even President Bill Clinton turn up for star turns. Gray’s film traces efforts beginning in 2008 to dismantle big pharma monopolies on life-saving HIV treatment, and furthers the argument that affordable, available healthcare should be a human right rather than a privilege of the wealthy.
6. We Were Here
Co-directors David Weissman and Bill Webber focus on the effects of the AIDS crisis on San Francisco in We Were Here. As much a personal recollection as a cinematic one, Weissman and Webber recall the wild hedonism following sexual liberation, and the rise of the LGBT rights movement that followed. Amid it all, however, the shadow of AIDS rises, first as rumblings of a “gay cancer,” and later, as an ever-expanding obituary section of the newspapers. Unlike several of the other films listed here which look at the crisis as a whole, We Were Here targets the specific lives of men and women lost to the disease, as well as those who survived to carry on the fight against HIV. Told with personal conviction and profound eloquence, the stories of We Were Here drive home the impact of losing an entire generation of gay men to AIDS, and the terrifying enormity of the plague.
7. Inside Lara Roxx
The Los Angeles porn industry made headlines in 2004 after an HIV outbreak sent shockwaves through the business. One woman, fledgling porn actress Lara Roxx, contracted HIV while performing one of her first scenes in LA. The film traces the years following Roxx’s arrival in Los Angeles, her diagnosis, and the aftermath on her life, which include a stay in a mental ward and a crack addiction. Roxx stresses that she went into porn to raise money for college, and how coping with the disease gave her a newfound purpose in life to help establish medical resources for sex workers, including porn stars. Inside Lara Roxx reminds viewers that for all the medical advances in fighting HIV, the disease can still have a devastating effect on a patient’s psyche. The film also raises questions about the porn industry caring for its performers, and considering that California voters just defeated a proposed law to require condom use in porn, Inside Lara Roxx the question of the performer’s plight is as timely as ever.
8. Paris is Burning
The original cinematic tribute to the fabulousness of LGBTQ culture, Paris is Burning offers more than just the origins of voguing and underground gay culture. Made in 1991, the film also highlights the effect of AIDS on gay culture in New York City, with a particular eye towards the transgendered community and people of color. Several of the subjects interviewed in Paris is Burning make a living as sex workers, and the movie pays specific attention to the dangers they face without proper medical care and in a hostile world dominated by cisgendered, heterosexual white men.
9. The Lazarus Effect
Bono and Spike Jonze produced this mini-doc for director Lance Bangs. The Lazarus Effect details the effects of proper HIV treatment in the third world nation of Zambia. Bangs interviews a number of men and women who recovered after coming to the brink of death thanks to their HIV infection, and the negative stigma that follows patients in undeveloped nations. The movie also offers a look at the growing counseling and treatment community in Zambia, and how the forming community fights to end stigma and provide testing, as well as the difficulty in getting medications to rural villagers. Unlike other films that focus almost exclusively on the effects of AIDS in the United States, The Lazarus Effect highlights the other great bastion of the disease, how it endures, and how humanitarian efforts continue to end the pandemic.
10. United in Anger
United in Anger examines the inaction of the federal government in the wake of the growing AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and radical activism that rose up to fight back. ACT UP formed in 1987 to demand action from the government and raise awareness of HIV with the public at large. United in Anger traces the history of ACT UP’s beginnings via recollections of some of the group’s earliest members. The film’s most interesting element comes as several members realize the community born out of the ACT UP protest movement, and the direction and purpose it gave their lives. Born out of the ACT UP Oral History Project, United in Anger gives an inside perspective on the fight by those who were there, and just how much life grew up from a movement about premature death.
In a way, this documentary by Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss captures the experience of the AIDS crisis better than any fictional movie ever could. 5B retells the story of the epidemic from the healthcare professionals that lived it, as well as the moral questions it raised. Should a doctor or nurse have the right to refuse to care for a patient if nobody knows how the disease is spread? Should hospitals make special accommodations for the terminally ill? 5B plays like an outpouring of empathy and a reminder that in a world of manmade evils, people can still choose to be good.
And finally, have a look at 6 overlooked narratives worth watching to celebrate…
This French drama kicked up a stir in 2017. For starters, it examines the AIDS crisis in Paris as opposed to more common settings like New York or San Francisco. Much as in the USA though, the government of France in the 1990s received a good deal of criticism for not doing enough to alleviate the suffering of HIV patients. BPM (short for beats per minute) follows the struggle of a Parisian ACT UP chapter, and the love story of two HIV+ members, as one enters the final stages of the disease.
2. It’s My Party
It’s My Party caused a stir upon its 1996 release, both for treatment of its subject matter, as well as for assembling a prestigious–if eyebrow raising–cast. The film centers on Nick (played by Eric Roberts, in one of his best performances), a man dying of AIDS. Rather than wait for the inevitable, he decides to throw a massive two day party, and euthanize himself at the conclusion. Potent, tear-jerking and bold, It’s My Party will divide audiences…though a cast that includes Margaret Cho (in a dramatic role), Olivia Newton-John, Marlee Matlin, Roddy McDowall, Bronson Pinchot and Elvira (really), cannot be ignored.
3. Longtime Companion
Once upon a time, before marriage equality, Ellen DeGeneres and Will & Grace changed the cultural landscape, gay people–men, in particular–couldn’t even get mentioned in the media, particularly when it came to obituaries. Yes, during the AIDS crisis, many families chose to conceal their dead relative’s sexuality, which often meant also ignoring partners and boyfriends. The phrase “longtime companion” often appeared in obituaries as a sort of code for boyfriend, and the eponymous film sheds light on how couples had to function in an hostile atmosphere. Bruce Davison scored an Oscar nomination for his moving performance.
4. Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother)
Before he went on to earn acclaim for movies like Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron earned raves for this weird movie about a woman trying to find the recipient of her dead son’s heart in an organ transplant. Enter the boy’s father: Lola, a transvestite; his girlfriend, an HIV+ nun named Rosa; a lesbian actress, and her longtime girlfriend. Todo Sobre Mi Madre walks a fine line between gut-wrenching drama and outright farce, making it necessary to see the film to believe it–which we recommend.
5. Beat the Drum
In an age of antiretroviral therapy and sex positivity, those of us living in the western world often forget that AIDS continues to ravage third world nations, including countries in Africa and Asia. Beat the Drum follows three different stories: the adventure of Musa, a young boy who leaves his AIDS-ravaged village in South Africa for the city; Pieter, a wealthy man with a son dying of AIDS; and Nobe, a truck driver who’s dalliances with prostitutes puts him–and his wife–at risk. Stuffed with rich cinematography that captures the beauty of the African landscape, Beat the Drum offers hope and warmth in the face of disaster.
Director Yen Tan made his way around the 2018 festival circuit with this gritty, black & white drama about a dying man trying to come out to his family. Cory Michael Smith (of Gotham) delivers a magnificent performance opposite Virginia Madsen, Jamie Chung and Michael Chiklis. Rather than see the AIDS crisis as a sweeping epic, Tan chooses to see it in simpler terms–as a personal story of a man who knows he will leave unfinished business.
Note: this article includes material from an earlier feature on World AIDS Day films.