This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Then, miraculously, a cocktail of several drugs, including AZT, was tried along with protease inhibitors that prolonged its effectiveness. One of the survivors of that time recalls it in David France's documentary "How to Survive a Plague." Symptoms seemed to reverse themselves. Cancerous skin lesions disappeared. Patients began to gain weight. Within a month, blood counts were near normal, and health seemed to be restored. Many found it hard to believe, and still today feel some guilt that they are alive while millions around the world have died.
The documentary charts the rise of the AIDS crisis from its earliest days. It benefits enormously by a wealth of video footage taken by ACT UP and other groups, showing urgent meetings of victims, who demonstrated and even demanded arrest outside federal and municipal buildings and hospitals.
That was effective in raising awareness of a calamity so stigmatized that President Ronald Reagan scarcely even mentioned; George H.W. Bush noted it was caused by behavior and recommended "change your behavior" — scant comfort for those staring death in the face. Bill Clinton, on the campaign trail, was scarcely in the forefront of the cause and seems startled when he is the target of demonstrations.
But AIDS activism was not limited to demonstrations. The film spotlights scientists, researchers and a retired chemist, not all of them HIV-positive, who did invaluable work in calling attention to a treatment protocol and promising drugs worldwide. Surprisingly, they won seats on boards overseeing the crisis, as one federal official observes: "They know more than we do."
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One of the most audacious American films from the 1960s is now available via the Criterion Collection.