Three Must-See Documentaries On HIV and AIDS Activism


To someone born in the mid 1980s and raised through the decidedly more HIV-conscious ’90s, the roots of the HIV/AIDS crisis in America may sound somewhat foreign. By the time someone born during the Reagan administration reached grade school, an afternoon of cartoons on Nickelodeon often contained a public service announcement advising 8-year-olds that hugging an HIV-positive uncle or sharing food with a friend could not spread the virus. Though this sort of messaging has been integral to reducing stigma, younger people who did not live through the onslaught of AIDS may not be aware of the crisis that HIV ushered in during the 1980s, the rash of deaths across the country, and the mobilization of an army of new activists and caregivers. Fortunately, three in-depth documentaries have been released this year to give the history of HIV an emotional, tangible context and remind us of both how far we’ve come and how far we still must go.

Click through for information about the films and trailers.

How to Survive a Plague: A film festival favorite, this documentary focuses on the controversial yet effective activist collective ACT UP! which was launched in the 1980s in reaction to a system that was failing to do much to address the growing HIV epidemic. The story proves emotional yet empowering, as a group of highly motivated people find power in community. David France, the film’s director, says that while AIDS decimated populations in its early stages, ACT UP!’s work also drastically changed the way we view health care and the pharmaceutical industry. “Before ACT UP! it took 10 or 12 years for a drug to go from an idea to a medicine cabinet,” France told The Huffington Post. “That may have seemed appropriate before, but in a disease state where the average life span after diagnosis was just 18 months, there was not time for that sort of laconic, studious, almost academic approach to finding the answers about a new compound.” How to Survive a Plague should also be required viewing for present-day Occupiers and burgeoning grassroots activists. Now playing in theaters; visit for a schedule of screenings.  

We Were Here: A handful of gay men and a lesbian nurse tell their personal experiences of San Francisco’s trials and tribulations with HIV. The documentary begins with the assassination of dynamic gay politician Harvey Milk, then goes into the first mysterious deaths and through the destruction AIDS brought to the city. Through darkness came light—several resources were born through that community’s need to come together, including the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and the now-institutionalized humane care provided to HIV-positive patients at San Francisco General. Now available on DVD, iTunes, and Netflix Instant.

Positive Youth: This documentary follows four young adults whose lives are affected by HIV, whether they’re positive themselves or have a family member who is. Importantly, this documentary gets into the everyday lives of people with HIV and the worlds around them. Now playing film festivals; visit for a schedule of screenings. —Michelle Garcia

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