Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Reality Check of How To Survive a Plague, a dishonest documentary!

A Reality  Check of How To Survive A Plague ...or why its director David France does not deserve to be nominated for anything except a dishonest achievement award for skillfully constructing  a dishonest  documentary and manipulating  people with a distortion of the actual history.

Over the last few months many people have responded positively to the documentary How to Survive a Plague directed by David France and produced with funding from the Ford Foundation and HBO. An aggressive campaign during awards season mounted by  both the film's producers and HBO has used manipulative tools to mine the emotional response of  people impacted by the AIDS pandemic either because they  knew someone who had died or know someone who is living with AIDS/HIV. They have  targeted the desire  of a younger generation to understand just what happened during the AIDS pandemic. Memory, repressed or confabulated,  is a dangerous thing. To create a false memory or a fictive documentary dishonors history and those who made it. I write below about How to Survive a Plague directed by David France and two other AIDS documentaries..  I believe PLAGUE  to be  a dishonest documentary despite its skillful use of archival footage. As someone who was a founding member of ACT UP and served on it's media and it's treatment and data committee and who was active in AIDS activism five years prior to the founding of ACT UP, I believe I have the knowledge and experience to be able to separate fact from fiction. When a director knowingly constructs a false truth in a documentary he or she must be called to task. This is difficult when one is dealing with collective grief and what I suggest is untreated post-traumatic stress in a portion of the film's viewing audience. France could have made a narrative film where he would have had the creative freedom to construct his story. Rather he choose to make a documentary. Please consider what I have written when making a judgement call on the value of each AIDS documentary.  I strongly suggest that viewing both Jim Hubbard's UNITED IN ANGER and David Weissman's WE WERE HERE is necessary to understand what is wrong with France's construction and the uncritical embrace of it by the both the unaware public and most importantly the media without questioning  HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE's authenticity.

jim fouratt World AIDS Day, December 1st, 2012-

Jim Fouratt’s REEL DEAL
Movies That Matter

ACT UP Documentaries : How to Survive a Plague (second look) and UNITED IN ANGER: the History of ACT UP + WE WERE HERE
Two documentaries have arrived that purport to tell the truth about ACT UP:  David France's  HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE  and Jim Hubbard's UNITED IN ANGER:THE HISTORY OF ACT UP. They are two very different approaches trying to tell the story and impact of ACT UP. One is an adult  fairy tale and the other a mostly visual timeline. Both draw upon much of the same visual documentation and focus on ACT UP-NY despite how ACT UP became an international movement.  The directors had once been roommates.Hubbard was a members of ACT UP-NY (as was I ). France, a journalist, started his career writing about AIDS . Hubbard was an experimental filmmaker who had lost to AIDS in 1985 his significant other, Roger Jacoby, a well known experimental filmmaker who dated back to the Warhol years   Both directors share an  insider point-of-view. I suggest this became both a strength and a weakness when it came to objectivity. It is also what gave me trouble in distancing myself to form a critical point of view after my first view of each. Note: after seeing the world premier of PLAGUE at Sundance I did file the next day a review published in Westview and on social media . After a few weeks and some distance from the emotional impact of seeing people alive on screen that I loved and who are now dead, I began to have second, more critical thoughts and concerns about the documentary. Hence my second look at PLAGUE and a comparison with UNITED IN ANGER. So I wrote:


HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE director David France.

After recovering from seeing people alive that I worked with in ACT UP that are now dead I began to have second thoughts about this beautifully crafted narrative-like documentary. David France is a well known magazine writer. His personal style I would suggest is high-end tabloid journalism. He picks a hot button subject and then tailors his article to make sure it sizzles. Often leaving out critical facts that would complicate his story telling. It may work for New York magazine but violates some of the basic rules as I understand them of documentary film-making. He picks and chooses facts that push his narrative but violates the search for truth and integrity that is essential to authentic documentary film-making. His subject is actually the Treatment Action Group (TAG) a break-off group from ACT UP-NYC. TAG  was emboldened by Larry Kramer's demand for fast tracking experimental drugs into bodies in trouble.  

TAG members became known as “Larry’s Storm Troopers.” They had all been active members of ACT UP. 

First most of them seceded  from the ACT UP Treatment and Data committee . Then,because of a membership meeting  floor fight led by Kramer, they failed in their attempt to appropriate ACT UP's treasury and take it with them. 

They wanted out of ACT UP leaving behind the debate raging over the lack of drug testing in women and children's bodies, clean needle distribution and direct action targets. Only men, adult white male bodies, were being tested in all but a very tiny number of clinical trials. TAG  choose rather to sit inside at the table with federal government officials and PHARMA reps while ACT UP demonstrated in the streets.. (Elinor Burkett's The Gravest Show in Town is the best examination of the pitfalls and merits of such a strategy) 
 was, with PHARMA support, successful in fundamentally changing the rules of clinical trials.  This change not only impacted on the AIDS community, but also changed the protections for any clinical trial participant including those conducted on prisoners. No longer were PHARMA or government responsible for any failures or negative side effects care. PHARMA was no longer required to provide when effectiveness had been established the drugs free of charge to any trial participant  who wanted then. Those rules had been in place to protect clinical trial participants. These were critical changes in the trial rules and relieved the sponsors of the clinical trial of almost any liability and responsibilities other than providing the product being tested and collecting the researchers data.  

TAG was desperate as most of their members were either HIV+ or had full blown AIDS. It was a time when people were dropping dead daily. 

The Federal Drug Authority with the support of  Center for Disease Control head Dr. Anthony Fauci , rather than compromising, caved in  on all their legitimate safety issues in place that TAG with the support of PHARMA demanded be changed. Resulting in TAG members and their doctors having fast track access to still experimental drugs. Drugs without data on dosage and side effects documented. While this access did in fact prolong some people's lives it also caused deaths because of lack of information regarding dose levels and interactions. This was particularly true with the drug DDI.  

The Treatment and Data members who pushed hardest for the fast tracking of experimental drugs like DDI were the same members who left to form TAG Some celebrity members of ACT UP who through their TAG connections got access to the trial drugs died quickly. Eventually dosage levels were lowered and access became widespread... but not until some members of ACT UP had died from high dose DDI use. 

All of this is left out of PLAGUE, except for a vague afterthought reference to finally questioning how fast to fast track unproven drugs. As well as a throwaway line about all political organizations having at some point problems internally. This shocking lack of respect for facts and context is what ultimately makes PLAGUE a well crafted fairy tale and a dishonest documentary.

France choose two men from ACT UP to focus his story telling.

The charismatic Bob Rafsky, who came out in his early forties, responsibly left a marriage and a child and became sick with AIDS. While supportive, Rafsky was not a member of TAG. He in fact was a member of a different Act Up cell working on finding a cure for AIDS/HIV. He did not leave ACT UP. Rafsky in many ways was the public voice of anger in ACT UP. he saw himself  covered with KS lesions knowing  he was dying. Angry and articulate Bob Rafsky was fearless even when weak and wasting away. Standing up to Bill Clinton is no easy task. But Rafsky did as seen in the documentary

The other was the very photogenic ex-Wall Street wiz kid, Peter Staley.  Who after his diagnosis mid-80’s with AIDS  left  his job. It was widely  rumored within ACT UP at the time that Staley rather than suing for bias compensation choose to settle for an undisclosed amount ... rumored to be in the high six figures. As is usual in settlement, the  terms  were subject to  strict non-disclosure legal restrictions. (Note : Staley now denies this as well as ever having said he had AIDS). 

 Staley was one of the few activists with AIDS/HIV in ACT UP that had that kind of money. Staley also had been one of stars in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis safe sex , safe sex videos produced by Jean Carlomusto.  US Senator Jesse Helms had attack these educational videos on the U.S. Senate floor and managed to get all funding for safe sex education cut to any organization that used the word gay. This is how “men who have sex with men who are not gay” became language that did get funding.
inter view with-sex-in-an-epidemic-director-jean-carlomusto

He even became entrepreneurial as an activist with  a profitable mail order AIDS drug delivery service which he took over when the two founders died of AIDS .

This service provided a cover for sick people who were afraid because of potential risk to career and reputation to disclose that they had AIDS/HIV. It protected their identity.  

Staley was the activist chosen by the International AIDS Conference the year they met in San Francisco  to be the voice of AIDS activism from the podium. He hobnobbed with the likes of David Geffin, Elizabeth Taylor and Dr. Mathilde Krim

After the release of protease inhibitors,  Staley like many other HIV+ men for whom the new drugs actually worked (For about 50 % of those who had been on a series of  drug trials previously the new drugs failed to work) , was given an extension on life. Yet he  fell into the sinkhole of crystal meth addiction like so many other gay HIV + men. Staley years later finally cleaned up and to his credit devised a crystal meth educational campaign targeting gay meth addicts. This is worthy of a separate documentary

While there were many women active in Act Up, only two women were consistent insiders in TAG: Dr. Iris Long, a scientist who taught basic science to the TAG members and inspired Mark Harrington to write the TAG treatment manual  ( he was awarded a MacArthur Genius award ($250,000  not Dr. Long) )and Gurance Ruta-Frank, a 17 year old healthy teen. TAG was a white, gay male dominated group.

When Larry Kramer who had inspired the members of TAG to take action, became in TAG's eyes more a  liability than as assert when they sat down with PHARMA reps and government agency honchos, they tossed him aside.

Only the San Francisco speech is referenced in France’s PLAGUE. These are some examples of the critical information left out by France to advance his story telling.

 Seductive in craft, PLAGUE in fact is not an honest documentary. France's shocking lack of respect for facts and context is what ultimately makes PLAGUE a well crafted fairy tale and a dishonest documentary. 

 It is like an expensive, well made Madison Avenue perfume ad (think Dior/Chanel} masked in social justice costuming. France's  product skims the surface creating like the best of Hollywood action films larger than life heroes to build  to a crowd cheering anthem rather than presenting the complicated construction of the emblematic, history-changing, crucial AIDS activist group. ACT UP deserves better, as does TAG. Today Larry Kramer can be heard saying TAG 's success killed Act UP.


Experimental film maker Jim Hubbard with author/playwright, academic Sarah Schulman created the Ford Foundation funded ACT UP Oral History project and has to date filmed close to 128  oral histories of women and men active in ACT UP-NY and a few other chapters. Fortunately they were able to speak with some of the members who are now AIDS death statics like film editor/actor Jim Lyons and artist/activist Ray Navarro. Hubbard used not only his own shot film footage but also incorporates footage from a variety of sources including ACT UP-NY’s media collectives including DIVA TV.

Relying on the visual aspect of film to tell the history of ACT UP- NY, he roots UNITED IN ANGER in collectivity documenting the successful media grabbing ACT UP actions including the re-creation of the YIPPIE stock market action,  the invasion of the nightly CBS news with Dan Rather, the mammoth national action,at the FDA headquarters,  the ACT UP women led  the prime time baseball game “No glove, No love”  Shea stadium surprise,  the controversial St Patrick's Mass die in, the White House mass burial and ashes delivery protest. What one sees in this footage and the footage of actual ACT UP meetings as well as road trips to the International AIDS Conference in SF and Montreal  is the diversity of people attracted to ACT UP and the strong role of women of all ages in ACT UP that is lacking in David France's PLAGUE.  Hubbard succeeds in capturing the group dynamics of the ACT UP general membership meetings and the group dynamic of consensus building on issues and tactics and their implementation through the collectivity of affinity groups. And most importantly in the darkest moments of AIDS how direct action was both empowering and, yes, fun and oddly life reinforcing. It is exciting and empowering to watch UNITED IN ANGER. A lesson in action for today's Occupy movements. 

The weakest part of UNITED IN ANGER is the talking heads who are in most cases redundant to what we actually see visually. But certainly useful for viewers who have no knowledge of ACT UP and its history.Their introduction breaks the cinematic rhythm of image motion capturing the collective outrage and empowering response to government ignorance and denial. I suspect the rush to completion with PLAGUE already finished dictated some of these more conventional choices. Hubbard has created in tone a more authentic documentation of what ACT UP actually was and how it can be a role model for future activism than the slick and easily accessible film France has created. While each film attempts to confront the cumulative effect of the AIDS deaths of friends and lovers in ACT UP, the loss and the effects of collective grief is subtext for the most part in both their story telling of anger, fear and outrage.

David Weissman’s WE WERE HERE which documents how the San Francisco lesbian and gay community came together  to take care of their sick and dying and build an AIDS response which included ACT UP San Francisco, Act Up Golden Gate and Act Up East Bay, succeeds where both UNITED IN ANGER and HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE  fail to go by concentrating on the personal human toll and redemption rather than just collective anger or TAG-like power brokering. UNITED IN ANGER is emotionally closer and works in tandem with WE WERE HERE, while PLAGUE in France's construction despite the Bob Rafsky story builds a myth that is not authentic in the way the other two are.On the deepest level PLAGUE rings hollow.

I hope there will be more documentaries on ACT UP's impact globally and as a template for today political movements. Perhaps a less subjective reading  can come from more experienced documentary film makers like Alex Gibney. Arthur Dong or Lesli Klainberg. The full story of ACT UP and its impact on saving lives, challenging government, the greed of PHARMA and the political expediency of elected officials is still a load stone for further documentaries.  As is what happened to ACT UP members still alive and the AIDS activists community at large including those who looked to alternative explanations of the cause and treatment of bodies out of balance are still ripe for documentary discovery.
(cc) jim fouratt September 24th  2012 revision

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