AIDS activism is almost as old as the epidemic itself. From the beginning of the AIDS crisis, activists fought to bring about medical research, treatment and legislation.
Aids activism tends to be immediately associated with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the influential direct action movement which started in the US. Most well-known is ACT UP New York. Its AIDS Activist Video movement has been widely documented, for instance in Jim Hubbard’s documentary United in Anger (USA 2012), and its archive is accessible at the New York Public Library. ACT UP had many chapters, all over the US, but also overseas. Recently, ACT UP Paris has been portrayed in Robin Campillo’s award-winning 120 BPM (France 2017).
AIDS activism has come in many forms and shapes. Activists have worked in different countries, sometimes with NGOs, sometimes in independent collectives. Follow us on a tour through the Face of AIDS Film Archive and meet activists from different countries across the globe.
“Mr. Condom”: AIDS awareness and sex education in Thailand (1988)
Safer sex awareness has been an important aspect of AIDS activism in order to prevent the transmission of HIV. This film from 1988 portrays the safer sex educator and politician Mechai Viravaidya in Thailand, who has also been known as “Mr. Condom”. The camera accompanies him through night clubs and bars, or his encounters on the streets. His AIDS awareness campaign was so influential that condoms have also been called “mechai” after him, Staffan Hildebrand recalls.
Mechai Viravaidya, 1988
View the entire film, Condom Night with Mechai 1988 »
Women activists – worldwide (2008)
Meet four activist women living with HIV: Frika Chia Iskandar from Indonesia, Grazia Violeta Ross Quiroga from Bolivia, Toni Roos from Sweden and Skytt Mukeli Nzambu from Kenya. Open about their HIV status, they talk about their struggle for health education, especially aimed at women and children. Some use art, others use media to bring forward their activism. The camera follows Skytt Nzambu during her work in the shanty town of Kambio with a population of 50 000 people, where one in five is estimated to live with HIV.
Skytt Nzambu, 2008
View the entire film, Women at the Frontline 2008 »
Community activism in Southern Africa (2009)
How do community networks in Southern Africa engage in health campaigns for people living with HIV and AIDS? This film takes us to Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Fadzai Muparutsa, then programme manager at GALZ (Gays and Lesbians for Zimbabwe), talks about the common misunderstanding that homosexuality is a result of colonialism. In fact, homosexuality had existed in Zimbabwe before colonization. It was criminalized through colonial legislation, and this legacy lives on.
As Staffan Hildebrand recalls: “This film is highly unusual and somewhat unique in that it depicts very small scale HIV projects in the deep countryside […]. In these places the HIV prevention was effectively at work. I was especially impressed by Mcbin Banda, who I see as a real strong leader of the Mitsinge group of people living with HIV. He urged his fellows in the group to be proud and not ashamed. He is a true local leader. People like him have changed the course of the AIDS epidemic. I was also very impressed by the youth drama, which the teenagers wrote and performed themselves.”
Fadzai Muparutsa, 2009
View the entire film, Frontliners 2009 »
A new generation of activists (2012)
With the breakthrough of the antiretroviral treatment in 1996, being diagnosed with HIV is no longer a death sentence. Medical progress has also changed the face of activism. Meet a young generation of activists and peer educators being interviewed about youth, HIV and AIDS. What does activism look like in Cambodia, Mexico, Sweden, South Africa, and the United States? Young activists in Phnom Penh include sex workers in their empowering work: “We do not discriminate against sex workers”, they say. “We feel we have the same heart, the same feeling.” Andrea from Stockholm recalls the transnational encounter with activists from Uganda. “You can’t protect yourself if you’re not accepted in society”, she sums up. All of these activists from across the world try to ensure that there is a comprehensive response to HIV. As Staffan Hildebrand puts it: “The older activists are now passing on the torch to the younger activists.”
Mary-Jane Matsolo, 2012
View the entire film, Passing on the Torch 2012 »
Transgender activism (2008)
Transgender persons are often marginalized in the memory of AIDS activism. In this interview clip from 2008, Bolivian activists Grazia Violeta Ross Quiroga and Juan Carlos Reja, co-founders of REDBOL, an organization for people living with HIV and AIDS, talk about gender inequality, homophobia and toxic masculinity which are the reasons for the widespread violence against women, transgender persons and men who have sex with men.
Grazia Violeta Ross Quiroga, 2008
View the entire film, Bolivia 2008 »
Sex workers as activists (1988)
Sex workers are but rarely acknowledged as activists. Meet Julie and Ken from the Australian Prostitutes Collective (APC). In their non-judgmental approach, the APC offers social support, needle exchange and sex education. Julie and Kent present their program for HIV and AIDS prevention among female and male sex workers, of which one third are also IV drug users. In this interview from 1988 Julie emphasizes that AIDS is not only affecting the gay community, but also heterosexuals to a high degree.
Ken and Julie, 1988
View the entire film, Australia 1988 »
Music as activism - Annie Lennox in Mexico (2008)
Annie Lennox, singer of the Eurythmics, is interviewed about her AIDS activism on the occasion of the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. Her wake-up call to becoming an advocate of AIDS advocacy work came after a visit to Cape Town in 2003, but the turning point was Nelson Mandela’s speech in Northern Ireland in which he referred to the AIDS pandemic in Africa as a genocide. In the interview Annie Lennox talks about the areas which are still important struggles for HIV and AIDS activism: poverty, violence, gender inequality and human rights violations. “There needs to be a huge shift and change in attitudes”, Lennox states and asks: “How can we create emotional change, mental change and behavioural change in men?” Lennox also speaks about music as a means of communication and reflects on the importance of international AIDS conferences. As Staffan Hildebrand recalls: “This was the only personal interview she gave during her stay at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. The celebrities have been instrumental in galvanizing and strengthening the international AIDS alliance. She has been very supportive of the Face of AIDS project.”
Annie Lennox, 2008
View the entire film, Mexico 2008 »
Youth activism in Mexico (2007)
Meet 22-years-old AIDS activist Ricardo Baruch from Mexico who talks about the international collaboration of youth activists and the AIDS situation in Mexico for LGBT persons and women in rural areas and developing countries who are often stigmatized. Although anti-discrimination laws exist, many people living with HIV are stigmatized and do not know about the legal help they are entitled to. Staffan Hildebrand recalls: “Ricardo Baruch is a gay and HIV activist in Mexico focusing on young people and sexual reproductive health and rights. He is also a co-founder of Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS. Ricardo is an openly gay person. He is HIV negative. I met Ricardo for the first time during the International Toronto AIDS Conference in 2006. As a student/gay/AIDS activist, he is using social media to communicate to young people in the world about the role of youth in international HIV/AIDS response.”
Ricardo Baruch, 2007
View the entire film, Mexico 2007 »
America and AIDS (2007)
This documentary offers a Swedish perspective on AIDS activism in the US, from the Bronx to Alabama. It allows for an interesting comparison to US documentaries, such as Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger. In a true spirit of social engineering, so typical for the welfare state, the focus is not merely on activists, but also on scientists, talking about research, prevention, treatment and care. “Young people could teach adults so much about HIV and AIDS, about protecting yourself, about decision making, about how to handle peer pressure”, one activist from MetroTeen AIDS says in the film. Bill and Hillary Clinton can be seen briefly, deeply moved, looking at a quilt at the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial.
Staffan Hildebrand recalls: “I was very honored to get the assignment from Dr Anthony Fauci to produce a film for the 25th Anniversary of the federal NIH research on HIV/AIDS. I especially like the segment where Tony and the writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer talk about the time when the activists tried to occupy Dr Fauci's office at the NIH in 1991. Fauci thought several of their demands were very relevant, and he invited Kramer and the other leaders to his office instead of sending the police to clear the area. This was the beginning of a strong friendship between Fauci and Kramer, which is highlighted in this unique film sequence.
Larry Kramer and Dr Anthony Fauci, 2007
View the entire film, America and AIDS 2007»