Produced by Testing the Limits, VOICES FROM THE FRONT provides a primer on AIDS activism, relying on interviews with People with AIDS and other AIDS activists, documentary footage of demonstrations, and footage from TV broadcasts to tell the story of AIDS activism in America 1988-1991
systematically and effectively, always allowing AIDS activists and PWAs to speak for themselves.
The film starts with the beginning of AIDS activism--the decision not to be a victim, an AIDS sufferer--and explodes the myth of PWAs as helpless victims, as emaciated corpses lying near death in a hospital, by showing viewers forceful PWAs telling their own stories, juxtaposed with Ronald Reagan
asserting his interest in AIDS and footage belying his statements.
AIDS activism emerged when PWAs demanded control of their own bodies. Their first reaction is "I'm going to die." The second reaction is to get involved. VOICES FROM THE FRONT then introduces the various AIDS activist organizations: the PWA Coalition, the first organization run solely by PWAs for
PWAs; the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), a "diverse non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis"; the Community Research Initiative, a grassroots drug testing organization; and the PWA Health Group which sells drugs that are
VOICES FROM THE FRONT is punctuated with footage of demonstrations. In the first, activists take over the 5th International AIDS conference in Montreal and effectively reorient the conference from the insular concerns of scientists to the concerns of the people with the disease. The next one is
called "Seize Control of the FDA" and was intended to force the Food and Drug Administration to speed up the nearly ten-year drug approval process. However, the FDA can't approve drugs that aren't being developed, so the next step is to "Storm the NIH (National Institutes of Health)," which
weren't developing the drugs to cure opportunistic infections, but obsessively researching AZT, the one drug already approved. Another issue is that those drug trials that do exist systematically exclude women and people of color. This demonstration is wonderfully visual, with 20-foot poles
spewing a rainbow of smoke, as well as numerous caustic signs.
The activists assert that the purpose of these demonstrations is to open dialogue with those in control. In addition, the activists prepare by learning the biology of the disease, the chemistry of the drugs and the economics of the healthcare system better than the so-called experts. The next
problem is that the drugs that do exist, particularly AZT, are so expensive that the marketplace, rather than people's needs, controls healthcare. The AIDS activists attack this by demonstrating on Wall Street and even on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, directing their protests at
Burroughs-Wellcome, the manufacturer of AZT. Three days later the price is lowered 20 percent.
Next, the filmmakers detail the problems of the whole healthcare delivery system. Viewers hear a heart-wrenching plea on behalf of a doctor with AIDS who has been left for nine days in a hospital corridor, soiled by his own feces, surrounded by garbage, subject to drafts while desperately ill. The
next expansion is to prevention. A demonstration at Shea Stadium during a Mets game targets safe sex using huge signs that declare: Men Wear Condoms, Women Get AIDS, No Glove, No Love. The activists also go to Chicago to demonstrate at the AMA and some insurance companies' headquarters. They
target needle exchange programs so that intravenous drug users will no longer pass the virus to each other. They demonstrate in San Francisco, targeting the Immigration and Naturalization Service which keeps even tourists with HIV out of the US and at the 6th International Conference drown out
Louis Sullivan, Secretary of Health and Human Services, the representative of the Reagan administration. The film ends with the Day of Desperation, a series of demonstrations during the height of the Gulf War, in Harlem for better housing, at Grand Central Station disrupting business as usual,
interrupting commuters' lives as AIDS has disrupted activists' lives.
The film's poignant coda presents viewers with the pictures of 12 activists prominent in the film who have died since filming began. The power of VOICES FROM THE FRONT derives from the directness of its message. The fact that this was shot on video and transferred to film adds to the urgency.
The impassioned pleas of PWAs are never mediated by scientific experts. In fact, in an analysis of one particular Nightline episode, the filmmakers show how mainstream media favors the platitudes of government apologists over the activists. The government spokesmen are allowed to go on and on
while the activists microphone is turned off.
There is so much information in VOICES FROM THE FRONT that it does begin to wear on the viewers. Generally, the filmmakers use music well to enhance the emotionality of the film, but their only real misstep is the over-use of a simplistic, annoying rap song about ACT-UP. Life is not a music video
and the filmmakers have captured a great deal of real life. This is not the sort of film to sway ardent homophobes, but open-minded people who have no real connection to the AIDS movement will learn a great deal from it.
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: Produced by Testing the Limits, VOICES FROM THE FRONT provides a primer on AIDS activism, relying on interviews with People with AIDS and other AIDS activists, documentary footage of demonstrations, and footage from TV broadcasts to tell the story of AIDS… (more)