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ACT UP against the system

by Ayan Chowdhury November 20, 2012
ACT UP against the system

Still from Jim Hubbard’s documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. Press photo.

Great change often requires a selfless, tireless and collective effort on the part of citizens.

Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP is a documentary which is relevant to our times. The film chronicles the uphill battle faced by the advocacy group known as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. Formed in 1987 and comprised of smaller affinity groups, this organized front demanded affordable health care, social benefits and readily available medication to combat AIDS. This came at a time when systematic indifference and general misinformation relating to the disease were all too common.

Between 1981 and 1987, more than 40,000 people died of AIDS in the U.S. alone. This brought on a sense of mass confusion, sudden loss and total misery within a devastated community suffering from a lack of social infrastructure. Yet various levels of government, public health organizations and pharmaceutical drug companies seemed to remain passive, if not utterly unsympathetic to their plight.

Initially, ACT UP began as a shelter for the marginalized, but the organization quickly channeled their youthful energy to become agents of social change. They were in effect a “combination of serious politics and joyful living.”

This is essentially a documentary about documentarians. ACT UP members were great record-keepers, and they also knew how to sell their ideas and garner public attention. The director uses first-hand footage from the protests, giving the film a sense of immediacy, while the viewer becomes a witness to history itself. This immediacy reaches a crescendo while viewing the footage from the demonstration known as the “Day of Desperation,” which was among the group’s greatest public protests, culminating with thousands of activists marching in the streets of Manhattan and shutting down Grand Central Station.

Whether through public demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins or voluntary waves of arrests, the group’s modus operandi has always been civil disobedience, which was inspired by the American civil rights and the women’s rights movements. At its peak, there were 147 chapters of ACT UP across the globe, but today there are far fewer.

One example of ACT UP’s collective stand is known as “Seize Control of the FDA.” While the The Food and Drug Administration typically takes years, sometimes even a decade, to test pharmaceutical drugs before approving them for the general public, patients who were HIV-positive didn’t have the luxury of time. Many of them were ready and willing to do the testing on themselves, hoping for a medical breakthrough or, more likely, a slight respite from the pain.

When the FDA finally allowed the release of the first AIDS drug known as AZT, it cost nearly $10,000 per year per patient. Understandably, few were pleased. In addition, the group’s female members also fought for women’s health issues, such as campaigning for the Centers For Disease Control to change the diagnostic definition of AIDS.

Above all, the words of composer, conductor and activist Rodger Pettyjohn perfectly encapsulate ACT UP’s raison d’etre: “I may not be able to fight the virus, I may not be able to fight the disease, but I can fight the system.”

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP screens Nov. 22 at 7 p.m. in Room H-110, 1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd. Director Jim Hubbard will be in attendance. This screening is co-presented with the HIV/AIDS Lecture Series Concordia.

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