Today sees the UK release of Jean-Marc Vallée’s film Dallas Buyers Club. The film attacks the American government, the FDA and Big Pharma, the major player in the US pharmaceutical industry. Another focus for the wrath of those battling thd disease was the Ronald Reagan government, who, when AIDS began to spread in the 1980s, didn’t provide the correct medication and stereotyped the disease as a “gay” self-infliction, with the president himself stating, “HIV is not my biggest problem.” With 40 million infected people and a growing death toll, such a response invoked fury from the gay community and other HIV sufferers and activists. Times have changed, but HIV/AIDS is still widely misunderstood and continues to carry a potent stigma in the public consciousness, one that these films are working to dispel.
1. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Matthew McConaughey lost an astonishing 47 pounds to play the role of Ron Woodroof, the real-life rodeo cowboy from Texas who, in 1986, was diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live. Woodroof researched the drugs he would need, and on finding that the most effective antiviral drugs were not being made available to him or to other AIDs sufferers in the United States, he began to smuggle them in from elsewhere. So began the Dallas Buyers Club, a distribution co-operative working out of Woodroof’s own Texan apartment, bent on providing the best medication to people dying from the disease. A gaunt McConaughey delivers the performance of his career, finally pulling him from romcom territory and placing him in a line of Oscar nominees. He stars alongside Jared Leto, who plays Rayon, a transvestite who receives medical help from Woodroof.
2. How to Survive a Plague (2012)
David France’s documentary focuses on ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in the early years of the epidemic. The group was formed of AIDS sufferers and activists, who fought for the right response and medical treatment from the governmental and medical establishments in the US. The documentary was produced using nearly 700 hours of archived footage, including interviews, news features, demonstrations and meetings of the members of the coalition themselves. France has called his film “historic”, because during it's making he knew that many of the people featured would ultimately die. He dedicated the film to his partner, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992.
3. Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves (2012)
This Swedish TV drama of three episodes, titled Love, Disease and Death, portrays the impact of HIV/AIDS on the homosexual community in Stockholm in the 1980s. Beautifully shot and steeped in rich symbolism, the film oscillates between the childhood of Rasmus (Adam Pålsson), his years in Stockholm where he enters the gay community, and the scenes of his deathbed. Rasmus has moved to Stolkholm from rural Värmland , and is quickly taken under the wing of queeny Paul, played by Simon J. Berger with many feather boas. Through Paul, he meets Benjamin (Adam Lundgren) with whom he falls in love. The title is taken from a warning one nurse gives to another as they care for Rasmus, revealing the ignorance still surrounding the transmission of AIDS at the time.
4. And the Band Played On (2003)
HBO adapted Randy Shilts' 1987 non-fiction book And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic into this Emmy-winning docudrama about Dr. Don Francis, an epidemiologist working to explain a series of deaths in New York and San Francisco. It charts the infighting of the scientific medical community and the shamefully inefficient government reaction to a growing epidemic. Also starring Sir Ian McKellan, Richard Gere and Angelica Huston, the film closes with a candlelight vigil and a montage of many well known HIV/AIDS sufferers and activists, including Anthony Perkins (of American Psycho fame), the fashion icon Tina Chow, choreographer Michael Bennett, Freddie Mercury and basketball player Magic Johnson.
5. Angels in America (2003)
This film was adapted by HBO from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Tony Kushner in 2003, directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate). It follows six characters living in New York in 1985, including Prior Walter, who is dying of AIDS. On his sickbed, Prior is visited by an angel played by Meryl Streep (and by Emma Thompson in the Broadway version). The film also stars Al Pacino as the real-life US attorney Roy Cohn, and situates the AIDS epidemic in the social and political background of Reagan politics. It went on to win five Golden Globes and 11 Emmys.
Text by Harriet Baker