Dir. David France. 2012.

Talking Pictures alias







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The release of this documentary feature could not be timelier - on the back of the Oscar winning film Dallas Buyers Club, covering some of the same territory of an unmedical, novice and untrained dying populace, taking matters into their own hands. Early AIDS activism is here presented with real super 8 footage of the loved, the dying and of the men who mattered to the campaign.

With both features, all of the requisite emotional button pressers are there: the powers that be just don't understand the first-hand experience of watching loved ones die. To parallel the emotional power, in 'Plague' there is the intermittent run of stats as the years skip by. In an ideal world these two films should be played back to back as a double feature to all medical staff and universities - everywhere as part of training. Act-Up, the early AIDS patient advocacy activism and its struggles with the status quo, bigotry and general unease with homosexuality. "These were young, vibrant people who were being snatched" claims one commentator about a world and atmosphere where "everybody became scientists."

The opening sequences are like watching concentration camp footage: emaciated bodies in the latter throes of life are presented - funeral homes would not take the dead bodies and they were put in black trash bags. The political landscape is distressing: real time footage shows the treatment of activists by the police, and of course the 'gay disease' was seen by the zealous right wing as a sign from god of the evil of their sexual practices. A sensitive voice in the film an activist that dies during the duration of Act-Up fiercest campaign curve, makes the point, " a decent society, what do you do about people who eat, smoke, drink too much or didn't practice safe sex….?" During one protest there were 185 arrests, so it would appear that this is the answer. The Catholic Church predictably condemns the use of condoms and Senator Jesse Helms pleads for homosexuals to 'get their mentality out of their crotches.'

There are stand out heroes: Iris Long, is a retired chemist who provides the scientific impetus and credulity to the campaign, and a particular force is Bob Rafsky - a PR guy who didn't come out until his forties. The major players are all clever, talented and very self-aware individuals that have the awful business of having their lifestyle and community threatened with extinction "we are in the middle of a plague" cries one angry speaker whilst trying to bring order and focus to an unsettled and argumentative meeting of activists: Act-Up splits eventually with splinter groups claiming differing focus.

This is a slice of social history that should be on everyone's shelf as living proof of the capability of a community to preserve itself. It stands up to multiple viewing. Heart rendering and illuminative.

Gail Spencer

Available on DVD.

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