Tuesday, July 5, 2016

How To Survive A Plague (2012)

Screen capture from official trailer
WHO: Directed, co-written and co-produced by journalist David France- absolutely not to be confused with 2016 Presidential non-candidate David French.

WHAT: Thirty days ago it was the 35th anniversary of the first official reports on what would soon be known to be HIV/AIDS. They were presented by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention on June 5, 1981 and subsequently reported on by the media; the first New York Times article was July 3, 1981. Since that time an estimated 36 million people around the world have died as a result of the disease. It's believed that an even greater number live with HIV today, and that fewer than half of them have access to the anti-retroviral medicines that can keep them in good health. As grim as these numbers are, they represent a huge amount of progress. Rates of transmission and death are decreasing on every continent. Treatment availability is on the upswing nearly everywhere. For this we must thank not just the doctors and scientists fighting the disease, but also the activists who pushed against the homophobia of governments, the media, and even parts of the medical industry, to make HIV/AIDS a priority.

How To Survive a Plague is one of the most inspiring documentaries about political activism ever made. It demonstrates the immense creativity and passion of activists fighting for an HIV/AIDS cure, vaccine, and better treatment in a most immediate, intimate style. The appearance of HIV/AIDS coincided with the invention of the video camcorder, which for the first time allowed individual citizen/journalists to record hours of audio/video footage completely independently (previous video recording devices required a separate technician to handle sound recording). In an age of convenient camera-phones we take for granted how revolutionary this development was for democratizing media.

How to Survive a Plague director David France collected thousands of fellow activists' tapes of highly creative ACT UP and TAG demonstrations and passionate gatherings, and has weaved the highlights together into a coherent and persuasive story of the ten years of struggle that led to the release of protease inhibitors, combination therapy and the first significant drop in the AIDS death rate. It's a remarkable document of the gay community rising to meet a collective challenge, featuring footage that will feel like a predecessor to powerful protest movements of the 21st century. It's the kind of movie that can bring a spark to any viewer's personal activist spirit.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM this evening only at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room.

WHY: I can hardly think of a better Frisco Bay venue in which to see How to Survive a Plague, as a particularly moving moment in the documentary (pictured in the above screen shot) occurred a hop, skip and a jump away at the Moscone Center, where Peter Staley enlisted a vast hall filled with convention-goers into participating in a powerful activist moment. Activism can sometimes take the form of a small, simple, but powerful act of solidarity. No wonder the Oscar-nominated feature screens in conjunction with the YBCA's current art-as-activistm-oriented exhibit Take This Hammer, named for a 1964 documentary featuring James Baldwin which played in the YBCA screening room a couple of years ago, and which is now looped in the gallery lobby daily during open hours (free for anyone to view, not just on a day like today when the entire exhibit is open to the public at no cost). Art critic Ben Davis has contrasted the exhibit against the more ballyhooed re-opened SFMOMA across the street, by calling it a "raw, woolly, sometimes inspiring and disturbing show, representing struggles that are important to think about if you don’t want to become entirely cynical about the future of art or the future of the city."

I have only taken a bit of Take This Hammer in myself thus far, but I already feel galvanized in small but profound ways by it; while at YBCA to view Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie last may my girlfriend Kerry Laitala picked up a poster made by the incredible San Francisco Poster Syndicate, which was passing out political art to attendees that evening. Without a good place to display it so that her neighbors could see, she asked if I'd hang it in my window. Little did I know that just a couple weeks later the subject of the poster would pass underneath it while campaigning with Jane Kim in my neighborhood. Did he see it? Who knows. But it made me all the happier that I was able to vote for him (and for Kim) in the California primary last month. Neither candidate is perfect of course, but I'll be happy to support Kim in November as well, and I hope that Sanders' influence is felt in platform that the Democratic nominee campaigns under between now and then (and of course I will vote for Clinton, given the alternative). I'm pretty sure that it's just a coincidence that Kerry was honored to be named to the YBCA 100 shortly after our visit, but it's certainly a happy one.

I believe this is the final Take This Hammer-inspired event in the YBCA screening room. Today there is also a series of films in conjunction with another YBCA exhibit The Ocean After Nature. Starting July 15th, the venue becomes the surrogate host for its neighbor the Jewish Museum's screening series of Stanley Kubrick films accompanying its current exhibit of the master's props, costumes, designs, etc. YBCA screens all his black-and-white films through July. Rumor has it that the Alamo Drafthouse will show the color films in August, but I have yet to see a schedule for those. Meanwhile, that month, YBCA hosts archivist Jack Stevenson as he puts the spotlight on San Francisco's erotic filmmaking history with a screening of Randy, the Electric Lady.

HOW: Screens as a video; all the footage in the film was captured by video cameras of various generations.