"The gay community kind of pushed away and didn't want to revisit that era either," Peter Staley -- an activist depicted in "How To Survive a Plague" -- explained in an interview. "Even AIDS activists that continued working on this rarely went back there emotionally. There was a layer of pain involved that made everybody avoid it. And I think that's one of the primary reasons there hasn't been any retrospective look back on that period. But now's the time."
READ MORE: How To Make a Powerful AIDS Doc: Talking to the Team Behind 'How To Survive a Plague'
All four documentaries indeed take a retrospective look back at HIV/AIDS. And I've definitely been met with a recurring question by (questionable) people on the film festival circuit where occasionally two, three or four of the films are all playing in the same program: "Why do we need so many historical AIDS documentaries?" Obviously those people had yet to experience one or more of "Vito," "We Were Here," "How To Survive a Plague" or "United in Anger," because their content makes clear the expansive narrative that was the onset on HIV/AIDS in America. A historic event on the same scale as epic war or genocides, there's enough stories in the American narrative alone to fill hundreds of documentaries (and a few more hundred from the stories of HIV/AIDS histories around the world).
"We Were Here" is largely and intimately told through interviews with five people -- four gay men and a heterosexual woman who was a nurse in an AIDS ward -- who lived through the epidemic's San Francisco origins. "Vito," meanwhile, is actually not exclusively about HIV/AIDS. It's about the life of Vito Russo, a New York-based film historian and author (he wrote "The Celluloid Closet," among other things) who became a prominent AIDS activist when he was diagnosed in 1985. "How To Survive a Plague" and "United In Anger" have the most in common, at least on the surface. Both depict the legacy of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a New York-based activist group that played a staggering role in getting the United States government and its agencies to finally recognize HIV/AIDS and get people the drugs they needed. But the two films are very different in the way they choose to depict this vast history, utilizing different voices and different archival footage. If you think you've seen both because you've seen one, you're mistaken.
What unites all of these films (besides anger) is how they depict the power of people to change the course of history. The power of people working together. And this is not exclusive to queer men. While the majority of the people depicted in all four films are indeed queer, white men (who were in simple truth the majority of AIDS activists), they also make sure to note the important role women -- both queer and straight -- played in the epidemic (particularly the two ACT UP films). And how a small silver lining to the AIDS epidemic was how the resulting activism really brought people of different classes, sexualities, genders and races together to fight for their lives together.
All four films are inspiring each in their own way, and I've now each seen twice, every time in the context of public screenings where the filmmaker (and occasionally also the subjects) were present. And the Q&As that followed have paralleled the power of the film. They brought together two distinct demographics: Those that were there, and those that weren't. People who saw their own stories (often literally) on the screen alongside people who (often for the first time) saw the history of a collective moment that in many cases made their lives possible today. And they are eager to find out what they can do to follow in the footsteps they saw on screen.
"I think that's why I made this film," Jim Hubbard said at a screening on "United in Anger" at Concordia University in Montreal last week, when a young audience member basically asked how to go about contributing to activism today. "So that there is a blueprint. I don't think this is the only way to go about it. And I think people have to reinvent [activism] everytime. If people in ACT UP hadn't seen the footage of civil rights protestors... That knowledge would have been much harder to convey."
Hopefully these films inspire young people to take on an issue which remains extraordinarily problematic (Hubbard also suggests heading to ACT UP's website, which is an invaluable resource). Every month, 1,000 Americans under the age of 24 become infected with HIV, which absolutely remains an incurable infection (and one that costs $400,000 to treat over a lifetime). And while HIV/AIDS is surely not a disease exclusive to men who have sex with men (it never was), this demographic remains staggeringly disproportional in terms of new infections. In 2010, 72 percent of the estimated 12,000 new HIV infections in young people occurred in men who have sex with men. This despite the suggestion that we make up less than 5% of the overall population. And infection rates are just one issue of many (social stigmas, criminalizing non-disclosure, drug funding both domestically and even more critically in developing nations).
Clearly a new generation of people are not learning from the astonishing struggles the people depicted in these films had to go through. And while the optimal, unrealistic situation is that you come out of any of these films with your inner activist unleashed (or their inner filmmaker as these docs should just be the beginning of reflective media on HIV/AIDS), at the very least you should find yourself simply coming out of these films. And what better way to do it then on World AIDS Day, when screenings of all four films are happening all across the country. If you're a New Yorker, you can actually watch "Vito," "Plague" (with France and Larry Kramer in attendance for a Q&A) and "Anger" (with Hubbard and Sarah Schulman in attendance for a Q&A) back to back at MoMA Saturday starting at 1pm (info here). If that's not an option, check out the websites for "United in Anger," "We Were Here," "Vito" and "How To Survive a Plague" for screening information across the US and Canada or just spend 5 minutes with the obvious Google keywords. It's truly the least you can do.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire's Senior Editor. Email him for suggestions for future "Qu(e)eries" columns at email@example.com. He'd love for it to a be a collaborative effort.