Films and series on the AIDS Epidemic: Our Team’s Favourites

For AIDS Remembrance Day this year, the GAY45 team has decided to highlight the queer culture that has been born out of the tragedy. Our first contribution is a list of films, documentaries, and TV shows that portray the queer experience of the epidemic most accurately, and creatively. Here are ten of our recommendations.

BPM (Beats Per Minute), Robin Campillo (2017)
Set at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1990s Paris, BPM follows the activists behind the French branch of ACT UP. We are shown the inner workings of the activist group, from grand meetings in lecture theatres to factionalism, and occasional miscommunication and disputes, all stemming from the same frustrating attempt to find a way to make the French government listen to queer voices for once. The film’s latter half switches to a more personal focus. We follow the protagonists past the picket lines and into their homes, and their personal lives. A mix of historical recreation and fiction, which both touches on politics and the repercussions of politics on the queer community, rounds up the film into a multifaceted portrayal of the AIDS epidemic which moves past the usual, American-centric, lens.

Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (1989)
A documentary shot at the height of the epidemic itself, tells the story of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, the film explores the lives of six of the names memorialized through the quilt, drawn at random. It seems to admit to only scratching the surface, alluding that there are hundreds of thousands of stories where these six came from, each holding equal weight. Combining personal stories from those who knew these victims, as well as archival material to put these voices into their socio-political context, the film emerges as a hagiographical piece, working towards the immortalisation, and celebration, of these victims of the epidemic. The film ends in this vein, showing us the first display of the complete (to date) quilt during the 1987 Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

It’s a Sin, miniseries, Russell T Davies (2021)
Providing us with the lesser-documented experiences of the British LGBTQ+ community with the AIDS epidemic, this Russell T Davies miniseries is as much heart-warming and hilarious as it is soul-destroying to watch. The nostalgic tunes and the gloriously camp 80s costumes in the series’ first part are replaced by a growing sense of darkness as characters start dying, one by one. The ‘before’ of the epidemic is shown to contrast with the ‘during’ and ‘after’. The narrative of It’s a Sin mirrors the frustration, the sudden unexplained deaths, and the fear of who will die next, experienced by queer people at the time. Based on Russell T Davies’ experiences during the epidemic, as well as those of his friends, It’s a Sin emerges as a fun, yet tear-jerking exploration of an important episode in the LGBT+ history of Britain.

How to Survive a Plague, David France (2012)
This documentary, later turned by its director into a book of the same name, takes us back to an exploration of the work of ACT UP, this time on its home turf, America. Over 700 hours of archive footage were used to create this historical palimpsest, showing us grainy home video footage from ACT UP meetings, news coverage of protests, and interviews with its key figures. The film lets the footage speaks for itself, working to collect these now historicised voices rather than comment, through the modern-day lens, on the work of ACT UP. The usual ‘talking heads’ interview segments are few and far between; we instead run through the key contributions of ACT UP as if they were happening as we speak.

The Normal Heart, Ryan Murphy (2014)
The second Ryan Murphy selection in this list, The Normal Heart is a 2014 TV film starring the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Jonathan Groff, and Julia Roberts. Set in 1985, the film once again dives into the socio-political climate at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City. What distinguishes it from other similar ventures is, however, that it chooses to follow a single protagonist, an openly gay writer and activist called Ned Weeks, who finds out that he has contracted HIV in the first moments of the film. The film captures the frustration, the desire to know what is happening, and the community-building of the queer community in New York during the time, tracking the days before the crisis was declared an epidemic.

And the Band Played On, Roger Spottiswoode (1993)
Another TV film, and another film created in the midst of the epidemic, And the Band Played On follows Francis, an American epidemiologist who becomes interested in finding the cause for the mysterious illness later named HIV/AIDS. He battles resentment from other medical professionals, risks of having his research shut down for political reasons and meets and befriends a group of gay activists. We switch between this medical perspective and that of the queer people affected by the epidemic that he meets. As these characters lose loved ones, and become ill and die themselves, the camera cuts to squabbles between doctors about who will take credit for discovering the cause, and the sheer amount of red tape waiting for Francis when he wishes to continue his research.

Pose,  Ryan Murphy (2018-2021)
Having just wrapped up its three-season long run, Pose shows us that ‘normal’ life goes on even during an epidemic. Set in New York City once again, the show follows the emerging ballroom culture, with all the friendships, and rivalries, within it. Not only is the focus away from white, middle-class queer people affected by the epidemic fresh here, but what we also witness is this fear of this still unknown virus from a trans perspective. In contrast to the glamour of the balls, Pose shows us that a range of people suffered as a result of the epidemic, as well as that people, suffered in different ways.

Angels in America,  Mike Nichols (2003) miniseries
Based on the famous two-parter play by Tony Kushner, Angels in America places itself right in the heart of Reagan’s America, at the peak of the epidemic. Capturing the religious turmoil caused by being closeted, and then contracting AIDS, Angels in America takes the image of an Angel and throws it into the subconscious of the characters dying from AIDS. The supernatural and the absurd comes back into play in this fragmented portrayal of the psychological effects of AIDS. The series, like the play, is divided into two parts: Millennium Approaches, and Perestroika. These are both future events that the characters who die within the timespan of the show, or who will die shortly after the show leaves us, will never experience. As future-oriented as it is historical, Angels in America never shies away from the gore, or the heart-breaking internal monologues, that make up the experience of living with AIDS, as well as the presence of loved ones, and the growth of pride to be queer.

A Virus Knows No Morals, Rosa von Praunheim (1986)
We owe German artist and filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim a lot for her contributions to the corpus of visual cultures of the AIDS epidemic. She is one of the only filmmakers to capture extensively the experiences and political discourse of the epidemic, and the changes in both, at its peak times, through documentaries such as Silence=Death (1990) and Positive (1990). Our focus today is, however, on one of her fictional explorations of the epidemic. A Virus Knows No Morals presents a fragmented collage of seemingly unrelated episodes, characters who have little more than five minutes of screen time. The film weaves together these fragments by their one common theme: they all follow, in some way or another, characters who are affected by the AIDS epidemic. We follow a doctor, a conservative gay man who runs a sex sauna, a gay couple grieving for the incoming death of one of them, a news reporter, and government officials. Not a stone is left unturned by Praunheim. In its unapologetically absurdist glory, the film accurately captures the absurdity of gossip, rumours and stories made up to counter the sheer unknowability surrounding the epidemic at the time.

Hideous, Yann Gonzalez (2022)
Moving out of the realm of historical fiction, Gonzalez’ 2022 short film presents a gory, camp, heart-breaking musical which explores queer body politics, and the changing discourse surrounding the queer body, from the AIDS epidemic to present day. An absurdist, stylised quasi-tribute to Derek Jarman, the film takes the music of queer artist Oliver Sim’s new album, Hideous Bastard, melding it with spoken-word poetry, monologues, and stylised close-ups of our protagonist, played by Sim himself, whose body has come to shape the perception the heteronormative world has on him: he has become a green, hideous, monster. The film uses the horror medium to explore bodily pain, shame, and, eventually, power, showing us that the body politics of the AIDS epidemic are not only the stuff of historical fiction, but equally shape queer self-perception now.

©2021 GAY45

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?