Culture, Entertainment, Politics, Review

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP

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Manchester Met screens inspiring documentary about the birth and life of the AIDS activist movement from the perspective of the people fighting the epidemic.

By Grace Atkinson

The LGBT foundation hosted a screening of United in Anger: A History of ACT UP at Manchester Metropolitan University on Wednesday, as part of the Let’s Talk About Sex project.

This project marks 30 years of activism around safe sex in Greater Manchester, and was organised in partnership with Manchester Met’s Research in Arts and Humanities programme (RAH!).

AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) is a political activist group formed as a response to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Since their forming in 1987, ACT UP have organised demonstrations of up to 7000 people, some of their most prolific demonstrations being ‘Seize Control of the FDA’ in 1988, and ‘Stop the Church’ in 1989.

United in Anger, directed by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, was first screened in 2012. It was derived from the ACT UP Oral History Project, an on-going witnessing project that interviews each surviving member of the activist group.

Project coordinator at the LGBT foundation, Mike Upton, said about the film: “It’s a personal inspiration for me, I guess, both in terms of style and content. What I like about it is partly because it talks to activists who were there. I think that’s an important part of doing these kinds of histories.”

The film was introduced by former ACT UP member Dr Monica Pearl. Pearl was a member of ACT UP between 1988 and 1994 and worked with schools and social workers, hosting a number of safe sex workshops. She also co-edited Women, AIDS and Activism, a book that tackled the lack of information on women with AIDS.

She said, “I’m very grateful to Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, not just for recording this essential part of American history, a story that is already in the very few intervening years been revised to depict a handful of heroes, or else has been completely forgotten, already left out of the lessons of civil rights struggles in the united states, but because, in this film, Jim and Sarah show us how it is done. Not that this is a story of the past, but what are you waiting for?”

The film began with the testimonies of those affected by the AIDS crisis. Members of ACT UP explained the degree in which people around them were dying, and the lack of understanding of the cause. This was a powerful context to the film’s content, taking it out of the sterility of historical fact, into something much more real.

A visual timeline was used to plot out each significant event within ACT UP’s progression, every stop including actual footage from the demonstration. Each demonstration was presented with a notion of success. Their third demonstration at Wall Street lead to a 20% decrease in the price AZT, the only HIV treatment available at the time.

Much of the film included footage filmed by ACT UP members, which gave a great insight into the operations behind their work. It was important that people were arrested at the demonstrations, to ensure media coverage. This was meticulously planned, from who was going to be arrested and exactly when, supported by ACT UP’s own legal team.

To many, ACT UP meetings weren’t just a space to conduct political action, but a social event. In the film, member Jim Eigo says: “ACT UP was an erotic place. The Monday meetings were in some ways the first place that you could celebrate sexuality again after AIDS hit”. This social aspect was important at a time when pressure was building from authorities to stop having sex all together.

The final scenes of the film featuring political funerals were some of the most moving. In 1992, demonstrators spread the ashes of friends, family and loved ones over the White House fence in ‘Ashes Action’, and the coffins of David Wojnarowicz, Mark Lowe Fisher, Tim Bailey, and others were carried through the streets of New York.

Zoe Leonard says in the film: “What AIDS revealed was not the problem of the virus, what AIDS revealed was the problems of our society. It was this fissure through which all the ways in which our society isn’t working became really clear.”

After the film, Sexual Health Lead at the LGBT foundation Peter Bampton, and Paul Fairweather from the George House Trust, joined Monica Pearl to discuss the impact of the film and answer questions.

Paul Picketing spoke about his work with the Gay Activist Alliance in Manchester, and about the fear those at low risk had of catching the virus. He expressed a need to regain direct action in light of current news, saying it still has a powerful role in challenging institutions.

Peter Bamptom discussed his role in the LGBT foundation. He said, “Were in the same situation with PREP at the moment, where it is not freely available, it is not available to those that need it most, were now in an impact trial where its not been mobilised in Manchester yet. When is that day that Manchester can access PREP on the NHS?”

Humanity Hallows spoke to Monica Pearl after the screening, who said, “It is a link between the past of activism, a very very successful activism, with a moment when people are eager to be involved but might not know how.”

The event revealed the importance of United in Anger in its efforts to document the history of AIDS activism and, 30 years later, it is not only a testimony to those involved and effected by the epidemic, but a “how to” of how activism can be done today.

You can find United in Anger on iTunes and YouTube. You can also download an ‘Activist guide’ on how to  form your own direct action on their website

About the author / 

Grace Atkinson

Grace is a poetry student at Manchester Writing School and writes articles for literature, art and other events.

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