How to Survive a Plague, the Critically lauded 2012 documentary by David France, has thrown some fresh light upon not only the history of AIDS activism but also the visual documents produced within the movement. France’s documentary chronicles the work of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the direct-action advocacy group founded in 1987 whose members worked to combat the indifference, negligence, and often simmering hostility of government, medical, and other institutions during the first fifteen years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. France utilizes a traditional mixture of talking heads and archival materials to trace ACT UP’s memorable public successes and complex internal tensions. The prominence in the film of footage shot by activist film and video makers provides a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of ACT UP meetings and demonstrations. But it also underscores the many functions of film, video, and photography within the community of AIDS activists: disseminators of health information, critiques of government and media distortions about AIDS, documentation of the work performed by ACT UP members and their allies, and a means of preserving the memory of those individuals whose lives would be soon snuffed out by the epidemic.
As crucial as France’s archival intervention is to keeping these images and sounds alive in public consciousness, How to Survive a Plague ultimately shapes the form and meaning of this archival material for its own rhetorical and affective purposes. This is only to be expected of a documentary, yet it forestalls the possibility for present-day viewers to experience the film and video works of AIDS activists in their original form. The work produced by activist media makers spanned educational shorts to avant-garde meditations, and they were made with a range of approaches and techniques that deserve to be appreciated in their own right and on their own terms. Far from passively “chronicling” the work of others, those who produced and shared AIDS activist media created works whose formal design and argumentative strategies both shaped the [End Page 77] contours of the protest movement of their time and offer complex visions for viewers to consider today.
Roger Hallas’s book Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image provides a fruitful reminder of these works’ richness and diversity and of the ideological struggles that shaped them. Drawing on concepts from the field of “trauma studies,” Hallas offers interpretations of selected pieces of activist media that situate their aesthetics and reception within the fraught debates over representation that characterized the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. Hallas’s analyses clarify the ways activist media permitted individuals with AIDS and their allies to express personal traumas and political demands outside of (or in direct challenge to) the stereotypes and strictures of the mainstream media. He invites readers to consider activist media’s continued relevance as the politics of the AIDS epidemic continues to shift around the globe.
Hallas views what he refers to as “queer AIDS media” as works that are founded on the act of “bearing witness.” Early in his book, he draws a distinction between two traditional modes of witness-bearing. One is the witness as testis, or a third-party witness who “derives enunciative authority from his or her exterior relation to the event witnessed.” Another is the witness as superstes, or a person who “has lived through something” and who “relies on his or her interior relation to the event, witnessing it from the inside and surviving it” (12). The dominant representation of the AIDS epidemic falls into the former category: attempts to chronicle the disease’s causes and effects from an outside position whose putatively “objective” distance obscures the works’ misconceptions, misrepresentations, and phobias. Within this mode, people with AIDS were characterized as either shadowy social deviants (with the potential to literally and figuratively infect the general public) or as pitiful individuals whose very illness and presence before the camera constitutes a “confession” of the actions that brought about their condition. AIDS activist media...