please rec film/documentary re the horror that was AIDS in the 1980s
June 13, 2017 6:13 PM   Subscribe

A friend of mine and I are going to see Angels in America when the National Theatre Live recording is played in Chicago in July. My friend is 25, and I realized that she has no concept of what it was like during the height of the crisis. Help me show her so that she has more visceral context than theoretical.

When I asked her what she knew of those early days, of what it was like to be amidst constant death, of the Reagan Administration's complete lack of response and actual mockery of gay people, she told me that she had a vague idea about it, but really no sense of what daily life was like when "See you at Ted's" referred to a funeral, not a party. I need film or documentary pieces that show what this play was born of, and why. I know of a handful of films and documentaries, but the ones I can think of are about the birth of ACT UP or they're the adaptation of And the Band Played On. Does anyone know of any film or documentary (preferably viewable on Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube) that shows the human cost? That shows hospitals turning patients away? That shows the unfathomable carnage wrought by lack of response due to ignorance, homophobia, and hatred? That shows how we lost an entire generation of gay men?

I've got Roy Cohn covered. I need everything else.
posted by tzikeh to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
How to Survive a Plague is streaming on Netflix.
posted by Flannery Culp at 6:25 PM on June 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

Nthing How to Survive a Plague, but since it is about early activism, I'm wondering if you've rejected it. If you have and you haven't watched it, it is absolutely wrenching in terms of the human cost, and there are numerous interviews with people who watched their friends die.
posted by FencingGal at 6:31 PM on June 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Longtime Companion
posted by cats are weird at 6:36 PM on June 13, 2017

This is slightly sideways to your question, as it's specifically in response to Rent, but Lindsay Ellis's Look Pretty and Do As Little As Possible blew me away. She talks about the movie/play and contrasts it with the actual political and medical situation on the ground, and I found it tremendously affecting - both because I liked parts of Rent as a teenager, and because I had nebulous problems with it that she finally put into words. If your friend has seen Rent (and maybe even if they haven't) I'd have them watch this.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:36 PM on June 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have seen both We Were Here and How to Survive a Plague, and they're on my "maybe" list. I don't want to overwhelm my friend and make it seem like she has homework, so I've asked this question in the hope that someone recommends something to me that I've somehow missed, that I'll watch and say, "Yes, this is exactly what I'm looking for."
posted by tzikeh at 6:39 PM on June 13, 2017

If you're rejecting How to Survive a Plague and We Were Here, what exactly are you looking for that these lack?
posted by Automocar at 6:41 PM on June 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Common Threads is about the AIDS memorial quilt, or more specifically about six people on the quilt. Made in 1989, won an Oscar for best documentary in 1990. Unfortunately not on Netflix or Hulu and the DVD is quite expensive, but libraries often have it.
posted by lovecrafty at 6:46 PM on June 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: what exactly are you looking for that these lack?

I don't know -- that's why I've asked the question.
posted by tzikeh at 6:47 PM on June 13, 2017

These are both more intimate suggestions than ones that cover a broad scope, but The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter and Silverlake Life track the experiences of a man and a couple dying from AIDS. For Dr. Peter, there's a documentary by that name and on the linked website you can watch all the video diaries he took over the course of his disease. Silverlake Life is brutal, you're basically watching these two men in love try to care for one another as they die. I suggest ignoring reviews of Silverlake Life written at the time it came out, because it's pretty clear that many reviewers were revolted that two men dared to be so obvious about their love for one another.
posted by schroedinger at 6:49 PM on June 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, just discovered that Common Threads is available online in full on the Oregon State University website here.
posted by lovecrafty at 6:53 PM on June 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

This may be a little gentler than you're thinking of, but, if you are willing to consider biographical accounts that received the Hollywood treatment, Dallas Buyers Club was actually a pretty good film. That was my first thought while excluding the above suggestions. The other films that sort of brought the horror of AIDS home to mainstream America include Philadelphia and the Ryan White Story, which yes, is about a kid, but IIRC (it's been almost 30 years), addressed the stigma of AIDS and how hard it was to get people to care. Also, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (I know the play, not the HBO film) is pretty amazing. I'd also consider thinking about TV shows (solo episodes or arcs), especially in the 90s that showed, usually heteronormative, people wrapping their heads around AIDS, exposing how horrible people with AIDS and HIV were treated, and gave a face to the disease. Hope that helps!
posted by katemcd at 7:02 PM on June 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Normal Heart, the HBO film, is almost as good as the play and since it's more accessible, I highly recommend it since I learned things I hadn't learned about the AIDS crisis both on an emotional level and a factual level even after having the honor of taking a public health class taught by a founding member of ACT UP.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 7:10 PM on June 13, 2017

Last Men Standing is a documentary (and a piece of long-form journalism) about the present-day survivors of AIDS.

I also think How to Survive a Plague is wonderful.
posted by Threeve at 7:15 PM on June 13, 2017

Holding the Man is a powerful love story (based on a true story) set mostly in the '80s in Australia which touches on many of the themes you mentioned.
posted by oxisos at 8:37 PM on June 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Parting Glances and It's My Party
posted by brujita at 9:35 PM on June 13, 2017

Seconding Longtime Companion - it doesn't feel like a documentary or homework
posted by cadge at 11:32 PM on June 13, 2017

Not a movie, but a short 2 minute Story Corps account of a woman in Arkansas who cared for and buried people who died of AIDS when their families abandoned them. Truly heart wrenching. In fact, just reading the transcript has me sobbing on my couch this morning.

Excerpt from transcript:
Ruth Coker Burks (RCB) and Paul Wineland (PW)

RCB: The nurses were drawing straws to see who would go in and check on him. And so I snuck into his room. And he wanted his mama. And so I marched myself out to the nurses’ station and I said “Can we call his mother?” and they go “Honey, his mama’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming.”

And so I went back in and he looked up at me and he said “Oh mama, I knew you’d come.” I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath. I called his mother and I told her that he had died and she said “I’m not burying him.”

So I had him cremated and I brought him home.

PW: And you buried them. When they died when no one else would.

RCB: Yeah. I’ve buried over 40 people in my family’s cemetery because their families didn’t want them.
posted by elmay at 6:31 AM on June 14, 2017 [8 favorites]

This isn't so much about the gay male experience, but the movie Gia touches on the idea that before much was known about how AIDS was spread, there was a lot of fear about taking in a family member that had AIDS, what would happen if the neighbors found out, etc.

Rent also springs to mind, although that might not be the atmosphere you were going for.

I found a book called AIDS in the Heartland that looks like it could be interesting. It's written from the perspective of an immigrant doctor with a specialty in infectious disease working in east Tennessee during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and it looks like it'd be an interesting angle.
posted by helloimjennsco at 10:25 AM on June 14, 2017

And the Band Played On specifically gets into the first years of the epidemic and the political struggles that accompanied the rising death toll... very well done.
posted by ToucanDoug at 10:55 AM on June 14, 2017

Abraham Verghese's memoir My Own Country was made into a tv movie.
posted by brujita at 1:28 PM on June 14, 2017

Oh, seconding Waiting for Pierce Inverarity's suggestion of The Normal Heart. It's the early days and years of the crisis through the view of the lead and his friend group, and it's both emotionally affecting and informative about the effect the disease had on the gay community and the disinterest of the government.
posted by schroedinger at 5:17 PM on June 14, 2017

Nthing The Normal Heart. I lost my best friend to AIDS, so I definitely lived through the time, and yet, when I saw The Normal Heart (play, not movie; I'm glad to hear the film is almost as good), I was reminded of a lot of things from the time that I hadn't remembered - all the things we DIDN'T yet know about the disease, how it spread, how to reduce risk, how people most affected dealt with all the unknowns.

Also, from a completely different angle, there was some of what you're talking about in Pride - it's English culture, not US, so no Reagan administration and certainly not the gay scene of New York, but there are some glimpses into how AIDS and the fear of AIDS affected how people treated each other ... and it's a much less serious, homework-y film than, say, The Normal Heart.
posted by kristi at 9:53 AM on June 16, 2017

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