World AIDS Day: HIV/AIDS in film

The entertainment industry has a huge impact on our awareness of the various issues society faces, and HIV/AIDS is no exception. Here are some noteworthy HIV/AIDS films that can help viewers understand the different perspectives of those who were directly and indirectly affected by the virus during the 1980s and that awareness is just as necessary now as it was 35 years ago.

“How to Survive a Plague” (2012)

This documentary, directed by reporter, author and filmmaker David France, follows the efforts of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Treatment Action Group (TAG), two organizations dedicated to increasing awareness and research of AIDS. The film, dedicated to France’s partner Doug Gould, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia, includes news coverage, demonstrations, interviews, and conferences and follows AIDS activists as they push for research and development of HIV/AIDS treatments during the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s.

“How to Survive a Plague” also features the underground HIV drug market, ACT UP’s founding of the International AIDS Conference and TAG’s petition of the immigration policies that prevented HIV-positive immigrants from entering the U.S. and its lobby for more effective treatments of the virus.

France’s first film, “How to Survive a Plague” stars Ed Koch, David Barr, Bob Rafsky, Larry Kramer, Barbara Starrett, and many others, all as themselves. ACT UP and TAG are credited with making AIDS, once a death sentence, a manageable illness. The documentary was named best documentary of 2012 in the Gotham Independent Film Awards and by the Boston Society of Film Critics. In the 85th Academy Awards, “How to Survive a Plague” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

“Dallas Buyers Club” (2013)

Starring Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, this critically-acclaimed biographical drama film portrays the fear and stigma surrounding the HIV/AIDS virus during the 1980s. It is based on the true story of electrician and electrical bull-rider Ron Woodroof, who was diagnosed with AIDS. Woodroof, given 30 days left to live, smuggles unapproved medicine from Mexico into Texas after he discovers the only FDA-approved drug used to treat AIDS, zidovudine (AZT), adversely affects his health.

Woodroof begins supplying others diagnosed with AIDS with the new drug, peptide T. He founds the Dallas Buyers Club with Rayon, a HIV-positive transgender woman addicted to drugs, played by Jared Leto. The club was originally a way for Woodroof to make money, but after several run-ins with the FDA and the death of a close friend, Woodroof puts all of his effort into supplying members of the club with the peptide T, still unapproved by the FDA at the time, despite its benefits.

After the credits roll, it’s revealed that Woodroof died seven years later than predicted after the FDA allowed him to take peptide T. “Dallas Buyers Club” is the true tale of a man who gave up everything to help others when the government and medical field wouldn’t, in a time of widespread fear of AIDS and the LGBT community, when AIDS was under researched and misunderstood. For their outstanding performances, at the 86th Academy Awards, McConaughey and Leto won the Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.

“The Normal Heart” (2014)

Directed by Ryan Murphy, creator of the TV series “Glee,” “Nip/Tuck” and “American Horror Story,” this drama TV film is based on writer Larry Kramer’s 1985 play of the same name and stars several big names, including Matt Bomer, Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Jim Parsons.

Set in the 1980s, “The Normal Heart” follows writer and activist Ned Weeks, played by Ruffalo, on his heartbreaking journey amidst the 1981-1984 AIDS crisis in New York City, and later the rest of the nation. The discovery of a sexually transmitted disease among gay men prompts the medical community to refer to it as gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), and Weeks sets out a course to fundraise and provide services to gay men through a new support and advocacy group called Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Weeks, along with several friends and doctor Emma Brookner, played by Roberts, push for national awareness of a disease that the government dismisses and consequently kills many.

This film unflinchingly portrays the effects of AIDS and the consequences of limited awareness, as the number of those who succumb to the illness grows even after the film is over. “The Normal Heart” won Best Movie in the 2014 Critics’ Choice Television Awards, Outstanding Television Movie in the 2014 Primetime Emmy Awards and Best Motion Picture in the 2014 Online Film & Television Association Awards.

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