No 11 Telling the Histories of the HIV Epidemic

One of the main cultural phenomena of 2013, at least from my perspective, was a welcome move towards telling the history of the HIV epidemic, and in particular looking back on the key years of the 1980s and early 1990s, especially in the US.

This started with the fantastic documentary How to Survive a Plague, directed by David France, focusing on the story of ACTUP activists in New York City. I wrote earlier in the year about how powerful this documentary was – almost 10 months later and I would still say this was the best, and most important, film I saw this year.

Which is not meant as any disrespect to the also rather wonderful All the Way Through Evening, directed by Australian Rohan Spong. This documentary presented a much more targeted examination of the impact of HIV, through the story of Mimi Stern-Wolfe, an incredible woman who, each year, organises a concert in New York which plays the music of composers lost to AIDS-related illness.

In theatre, I finally fulfilled a long-held ambition by seeing the Belvoir St revival of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Staged 20 years after Tony Kushner’s 2-part epic first debuted, director Eamon Flack, and indeed the entire cast, did a brilliant job of making the pain, and fear, and hope, and hopelessness, seem all too real (which is a pretty decent effort when the plays ask the audience to suspend their disbelief about angels suspended on ropes, or in this case, standing on stepladders).

It was also a privilege to see the 7-hour marathon (we saw Millenium Approaches and Perestroika back-to-back) with my fiancé Steven. Not normally a fan of theatre, he was as engrossed as I was by this production.

More importantly, these films and plays served as a ‘history lesson’ for both of us. Steven was born in December 1983, after the first deaths from AIDS-related illness in Australia. His entire life has been in the shadow of this epidemic. Even though I am (*cough*) a little bit older than that, I still turned 18 after saquinavir and ritonavir had been approved by the FDA in the US, fundamentally altering the nature of the epidemic for the better.

It feels right that all generations of gay and bisexual men, and indeed all people potentially affected by HIV, should take the time to reflect on the history of this epidemic. That we should remember the people who fought to overcome stigma and discrimination, who fought for better access to treatment, who fought for the right to survive.

And of course it is vital to remember the personal stories of those who lost their own fight.

But it is also vital that, in doing so, we do not lose sight of the challenges that remain. Because the activists of yesterday might be somewhat disappointed in us if we did not also fight the battles of today, and tomorrow, with the same conviction that they did.

This includes tackling the stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV that continues to exist in our society. And working hard to help prevent new transmissions – something that was thrown into sharp relief by recent figures which showed that HIV notifications increased 10% nationwide in 2012, including a jump of 24% in NSW.

Above all, the global challenge of HIV is in ensuring that all people have access to effective treatments, irrespective of their race, sexual orientation or gender identity, their class or their nationality. Cost should not be a barrier to receiving the latest drugs. Indeed, access to treatment must be considered a fundamental human right.

Hopefully, Australia can play its part in the reinvigoration of this fight as it hosts the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne next July.

In the meantime, the recent trend towards (re-)telling the history of HIV on stage and on film, which arguably started with We Were Here back in 2011 (about the impact of HIV on San Francisco), shows no signs of letting up.

Next month, Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club will hit our cinemas. It is reported that John and Tim, a documentary about the life of the author of the memoir Holding the Man, Timothy Conigrave, and his partner John Caleo, will also be released early in 2014. [Incidentally, that book was the first I read as a young gay man, and remains my favourite to this day].


Just this week, director Neil Armfield received Screen Australia funding to develop a film version of Holding the Man, based on Tommy Murphy’s 2007 stage adaptation. The Hollywood version of Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical 1980s play The Normal Heart looks on track for a 2014 release, too.

Which, in a way, brings us all the way back to How to Survive a Plague. The scene of Kramer sitting in a room full of divided and dispirited activists, yelling “Plague!” is the one that has stayed with me above all others. One day, the epidemic that is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus will be over, in part because of the work of ACTUP activists and others like them.  Til then, we must keep remembering, and keep fighting.

Related posts

My post after watching How to Survive a Plague:

My post after watching Angels in America:

Belvoir St Theatre’s Angels in America

Angels in America Tickets PictureAnother thing which happened during June, and which I am still thinking about more than a fortnight later, is that I finally had the opportunity to see Angels in America.

Steve and I (somewhat ambitiously) went to see Part 1: Millennium Approaches and Part 2: Perestroika, in a double bill on Saturday 15 June. And it was one of the best theatre productions which I have ever seen. In one of the biggest compliments that a production can get, Steve even managed to stay awake – and interested – for all 7 hours.

Something about the production just clicked. The actors were uniformly great, so much so that it would be difficult to single anyone out for individual praise (although, having said that, Deobia Oparei as Belize/Mr Lies was hilarious and mesmerising at the same time).

The music, lighting and set design didn’t get in the way of the story-telling either. In fact, the decidedly ‘low-fi’ and rather ingenious way that the ‘Angels’ were brought to life in what is a small performing space actually helped – it took away some of the over-the-top fantasticality of the idea of angels appearing in contemporary society. And that, to this atheist at least, was a very good thing.

But as with most good theatre, the strength of Angels in America, and particularly in Part 1: Millennium Approaches, is the writing. Tony Kushner set down some absolutely amazing conversations between the characters. The back-and-forth about racism in America, between Belize and Louis, is still running through my head – and is still near-perfect in its encapsulation of problems of race as they are today (whether that is in the United States or indeed Australia).

The core subject matter of the play – the existential crisis presented by HIV/AIDS, how society responded to that crisis, and how the gay male community in particular was affected – has been the subject of some wonderful ‘art’ in the past 12 months, with Angels in America coming so soon after the brilliant documentaries All the Way Through Evening and How to Survive a Plague.

It is vitally important that we remember that time in our collective recent history, and the people who have been so tragically lost because of that awful virus. And just as important that we continue to work to ensure that it does not continue to claim so many lives now, and into the future.

Anyway, well done Belvoir, and Director Eamon Flack, for what really was a fantastic day – and night – at the theatre.