David France’s meticulously detailed account is how an angry and fiercely committed group of selfless people refused to lie down and play dead and by taking on both the pharmaceutical industry and Government institutions, they made a real difference and saved countless live. This is of course the story of the AIDS epidemic which brought about the formation of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power organisation, better known as ACT UP, an gay activist group who’s success against so many odds should never ever be under-estimated as it resulted in eventually saving so many lives.
The documentary uses a treasure trove of archival footage (shot by some 33 different people) that included many of Act Up’s very early meetings and their big public demonstrations when they proved just how adept they were at high profile events to attract media attention. Their stark Silence=Death logo spoke volumes and as they battled the open hostility of politicians and the indifference of government agencies such as the F.D.A., you could feel their rage building especially as the death tolls kept climbing so astronomically. What comes over is not only the reality that the establishment resented Act Up’s very presence, but the fact that they were so visibly uncomfortable with a minority group making their demands so aggressively and with such obvious outrage and totally unwilling to back down.
We know now there was a great deal of mis-handling of the epidemic back then with over-priced hard-to-come-by ineffectual drugs and sheer ignorance in the treatment of people with HIV and Aids, but what I had never realized until seeing this film, was how much worse it would have been with out the brutal advocacy of Act Up : our debt to their achievements is completely unmeasurable.
It is a devastatingly sad movie as it makes one relive the overwhelming grief of losing so many friends, and numbs you with shock. It really struck home for me when someone commented that 1993-1995 was the very worse period of the crisis, and the fact that the life saving miracle Protese Inhibitors appeared in 1996 was a blessing for those still alive, but sadly too late for those we had just lost.
France profiles the movement’s main people whose courage and determination and sheer bloodymindedness gave Act Up such wonderful and forceful leadership. There were incredible awe-inspiring men and women who so passionately articulated their feelings and their hopes. Some died along the way, but we learn at the end of the movie that others did survive against all odds. It’s a high note to finish this heartbreaking and catastrophic story.
It’s not easy to confront this painful part of our recent past, but I think it is such an important account that it should be almost compulsory viewing lest any of us forget how we almost lost an entire generation of our community. It is also a remarkable lesson on the power of speaking up and fighting for what we believe is right as it can not just change lives, but save them too.