by Mark Maxwell Abushady, NYC
How to Survive a Plague
This Oscar-nominated documentary tells several stories: the rise of AIDS in this country; a history of the organization ACTUP; and the stories of several activists on the front lines fighting for medical care, research, funding, and respect. Eye-opening and at times riveting, this film will change perceptions and prejudices. I believe this is the first full revisiting and historical consideration of this plague that shaped politics, activism, research, relationships and empowerment. From this perspective, the actions of individuals and institutions can be seen much more clearly.
ACT-UP, often portrayed in the media as “angry” and “over the top”, looks to be fairly well justified in the face of great inaction and indifference by government and private organizations. In telling their story we see people empowering themselves, educating themselves, comforting each other, and fighting bravely for decent, humane treatment.
The film reminds us that there was a time when no treatment and little knowledge was available about AIDS. Nearly 100% fatal, panic, fear and antigay violence was the norm. Hospitals turned away the dying, and those that did die were disposed of “in black plastic trash bags.” There were funeral parlors that would not handle arrangements for those who had passed from AIDS. Out of this slurry of darkness arose heroes of great strength and perseverance.
We follow them through protests, acts of civil disobedience, and ultimately, meetings with pharmaceutical company heads, researchers, and politicians. There are clips of television appearances, including some very rousing footage of an in-church protest against the Catholic stance regarding “the immorality of condom use” which is stunning.
Many lessons are to be had from this film. One is that activists (or concerned citizens) can make progress happen “faster, better, more ethically, effectively, and with less cost” than bureaucracy-ridden, conservativeentrenched political and corporate entities. Beyond the incredible challenge that AIDS represented at that time, this is a grand lesson for all of us fighting the myriad of social issues prevalent in our current society. We all have the power to fight back and “ACT UP.”
A Fierce Green Fire:
The Battle For A Living Planet
Haunting in its images and profound in its message, A Fierce Green Fire is, among other things, a history of the Environmental Movement. If you don’t think of yourself as an Environmentalist, consider Bob Bullard’s (Environmental Justice Advocate) words: If you are concerned about the air, the water, and your food, then you are an Environmentalist.
The film, presented in five sections (Conservation, Pollution, Alternatives, Going Global, and Climate Change) utilizes the story of a concerned citizen or activist to illustrate the topic at hand. Conservation examines conditions that gave rise to environmental concerns in the general populace. An overview of the National Park system (and constant threats to the parks), the rise of the Sierra Club and the changing vision of club leaders is presented. Their successes with the support of an aware 1960’s public will cause much reflection by those of us who remember those years.
Pollution includes a statement by President Nixon on Earth Day: “The great question of the 1970s is: shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature, and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, to our water.” Noted are the creation of the EPA, the strengthening of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the creating of the Super Fund Act. (In an age where industrial practices such as fracking are exempt from these laudable acts of the 70’s, it is arguably more than simple nostalgia that makes us look back fondly at those times.) A large portion is devoted to the Love Canal tragedy. That people were told by industry, government agencies and officials that the 56% birth defect rate and extremely high cancer rate was a coincidence, and had nothing to do with tons of toxic waste buried under and bubbling up in their town is something that every American should be aware of. From President Regan, we hear the term ‘environmental extremism’ and see a backing off of the regulation of business and industry. The segment ends with an examination of environmental racism: simply put, the siting of heavy industry and landfills in poor, mostly African American neighborhoods without political clout or proper representation in local government.
The section Alternatives includes the attempts at alternative energy development (including President Carter’s installation of solar panels on the White House), the rise of Greenpeace (with some incredible footage of their antiwhaling campaigns), and the failing of this country in the development of alternative energy (including the removal of the White House solar panels by President Regan and his ending of tax credits and subsidies for alternatives). Bill McKibben, author and activist, sums this up in the following: “Now, 20, 30 years later, you want a turbine? You go to Denmark. You want a solar panel? The top, biggest factories are in Japan, Germany & China; not here. We are bit players because of a bunch of political decisions we made, beginning with the election of Ronald Regan, pay no attention to the idea that we might ever need to change.”
Going Global visits the Amazon rainforests and educates us about the work of Chico Mendes and others working on behalf of both people and environment. The subjugation of the Southern Hemisphere countries by those in the North is clearly seen in an effective nighttime view of the planet earth and its electric lights from above. Author/ Professor Vijaya Nagarajan points out that “The primary theme that runs through all these (indigenous) movements is the loss of access rights to the commons . . . the right of subsistence, and the right of access to clean water; to food, to forests . . . the right to live. How do you plant trees in common; how do you hold forest in common when every other force around you is trying to get you to privatize property?”
The film concludes with Climate Change, a problem acknowledged as “blowing out of the water” all previous issues. We hear Dr. James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute state, in 1985, that the Greenhouse effect HAS been detected, that its cause is human, and that it will get much worse. We hear petro-funded speakers counter with statements of lush plant growth, of flourishing gardens, etc. We visit world conferences in which the U.S. in particular backs out of any significant actions to cut emissions.
Two million organizations worldwide work on social justice and the environment. The shift from saving wild places to saving human society is, in itself, a wake-up call. It is, as one speaker notes, “humanity’s immune response” to the corruption of economic systems and the pollution of an industrial complex operating with ever lessening regulations.
Truly, one of the most important films I’ve ever seen. Hopefully it will prove to be a convincing argument that, for things to change, we must become active and involved in fighting corruption, greed, shortsightedness, and the oppression of all living things. Corporate interests have just about succeeded in redefining the term ‘Environmentalist’ as a radical, anti-American, anti-job-creating, and antiprogress term. It’s time we reclaim it as a calling both noble and profoundly good. It is true environmentalism that will give us a chance at a future.