November 4, 2011 -- This moving, profound documentary featuring witnesses to the genesis of America's AIDS crisis covers some familiar ground from a different angle and presents a new perspective on human nature and history. The AIDS pandemic, particularly in America, has been well-covered before in both documentaries and in dramatic films, and it should be. AIDS has killed more than 25 million people worldwide, making it one of the most deadly diseases ever, and there is still no cure, no vaccine to stop it.
This film is not just about the horror of that terrible disease and its victims, it is also about the kindness and compassion of those who bravely fought against AIDS and sought to help those stricken with it, even if all they could do was to be with them when they died. This is about the caregivers and the activists who sought to spur medical research into the disease. At a time when prominent televangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were demonizing homosexuals and suggesting that AIDS was God's punishment for sin, many people volunteered to help those who were sick. These were ordinary people who were caught up in the center of a storm. This is their story.
One of those who stepped up was a nurse, Eileen Glutzer, who treated some of the first AIDS patients in San Francisco, ground zero of the AIDS epidemic in America. Eileen was among the first to volunteer for the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital. In those early days the disease had not been identified and how it was transmitted was unknown. The risk of catching the disease was unknown too, so those who worked on the AIDS ward were all volunteers in the beginning, taking an unknown risk. Eileen said she didn't even use surgical gloves when taking blood samples at first.
Eileen talks with feeling about the difficulty of dealing with her emotions when so many of her patients were dying so frequently. She developed bonds with many of these patients and it was hard for her to deal with the loss. Another person frequently found in the same hospital ward was Ed Wolf, a gay man who volunteered to help AIDS patients through the Shanti Project of San Francisco. The Shanti project trained volunteers to provide emotional support for AIDS patients, many of whom were facing the disease alone. Wolf, a writer, talks eloquently of all that he gained, and lost, as a Shanti volunteer. Wolf, who had trouble making friends and who avoided casual sex, also avoided AIDS for the same reason. But he felt isolated from the rest of the gay community. The Shanti Project provided him that connection. Over time, the emotional toll of seeing so many friends die got to be too much for him, however, and he had to leave the AIDS ward.
Artist Daniel Goldstein, talks at length about his own long struggle with AIDS, the deadly illness that he barely managed to survive, while two of his partners died. Goldstein said AIDS changed the way people viewed homosexuals like himself. He said gays were viewed as party people, given to casual sex and fun. AIDS changed that view, he said, as people saw that gays were also caregivers, supporting each other and serious causes. Eventually, the rest of society joined in the fight against AIDS. Goldstein and others noted that among those who helped early on with care and blood donations were lesbians, who had long been at odds with homosexual men on some issues. The AIDS crisis brought these two groups together. Lesbians did much to help with the AIDS crisis out of compassion rather than fear, since they faced very little risk of getting AIDS themselves.
Guy Clark, who runs a flower shop in San Francisco's Castro district, the very epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in America, had his own front seat to the crisis. He said many times people came to him begging for flowers for the funerals of friends when they couldn't afford to pay.
Eileen, Goldstein, and Ed Wolf all spoke about clinical trials they were involved with of various drugs that were tried in the effort to stop AIDS, including AZT. Goldstein was involved in one trial that killed everyone in the trial except for himself. Goldstein dropped out of the clinical trial early because of the drug's debilitating side effects. That is the only thing that saved his life. His partner, an immunologist, who had gotten him in the trial in the first place, died.
Paul Boneberg, AIDS activist, now executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, talked about the effort to speed up clinical trials and delivery of new AIDS drugs and to put more money into AIDS research. The Project AIDS memorial quilt, protests by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and many other actions are mentioned. The human immunodeficiency virus which causes AIDS may have been around since 1939 when some believe it first passed into the human population in Africa, yet it wasn't recognized until 1981. It was easy to ignore, at first. Even today, most of those who die from the disease are in Africa, and relatively little is being done to combat the disease there. That doesn't seem to be a high priority for most people in the richer parts of the world.
Despite that, this film gives us hope. It shows that people are capable of great compassion and courage and will go to heroic lengths to care for one another and to fight this terrible disease. This movie is about a triumph of the human spirit against a terrible enemy. It is about the best things in the human spirit defeating the worst aspects of human nature. People are at their best when they identify with others, no matter how different they may seem, and strive to help them. People are at their worst when they emphasize the differences between people to the degree that they will not help them, and even hurt, or kill those branded as “others.” The problems of the “other” easily become somebody else's problem. Generosity, compassion, courage, determination, love and caring are the things that are emphasized in this film. This film rates a B+.
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