Making a difference


Voices from the Front
A Testing the Limits Production
Australian premiere screening with Sex and the Sandinistas
Brisbane Resistance Centre, 29 Terrace St, New Farm
Sunday, June 27, 7.30 p.m.

Tongues Untied
A Marlon Riggs film
Brisbane premiere screening with Paris is Burning
Resistance Centre
Saturday, July 10, 7.30 p.m.
Part of the Lesbian and Gay Pride Film Festival
Reviewed by Nick Everett

Voices from the Front "demonstrates that informed committed citizens can indeed make a difference" writes Vincent Canby in the New York Post. This message comes through loud and clear in this political documentary produced by San Francisco film makers Sandra Elgear, Robyn Hutt and David Meieran.

It traces the coming together of a movement to expose the failure of the US health care system and to challenge the US government's inaction and neglect concerning AIDS.

This movement has also been the catalyst for a much broader lesbian and gay rights movement that brought together a national march on Washington of 650,000 people in October 1987 and another of more than 1 million on April 25 this year.

Voices from the Front looks at issues that have radicalised a cross-section of US society and the role of organisations, such as ACTUP and the People with AIDS (PWA) Coalition, in translating anger into direct action. Kendall Thomas, from ACTUP New York, argues that confronting the AIDS crisis necessitates a democratisation of US society. While PWAs are denied any say over AIDS policy, drug companies such as Burroughs Wellcome reap massive profits at their expense.

The first major action coordinated nationally by AIDS activist organisations was the occupation of the Federal Drug Authority (FDA) in 1988. This bureaucracy was targeted because over seven years of the AIDS crisis only one drug, AZT, had been released and its

price was out of reach for most PWAs. The FDA responded to this action by loosening restrictions on the availability of new AIDS drugs.

In 1990 AIDS activists converged on the National Institute of Health (NIH) in New York, calling for a more equitable clinical trial system and expanded research into new drugs and treatment. Activists pointed to the cosy relationship existing between the NIH and Burroughs Wellcome, owners of the patent on AZT.

ACTUP claims that Burroughs Wellcome has selectively tested and marketed AZT because its market is widest. Because it attempts to relieve the symptoms of diverse forms of AIDS-related diseases, large profits are derived from this drug, despite its being too poisonous for most PWAs. PWAs pay $8000 per year for AZT.

ACTUP has demonstrated in Wall Street, bearing placards saying 'Sell Wellcome', and at the head office of Burroughs Wellcome to draw attention to this profiteering. ACTUP managed to halt trading at Wall Street, and Wellcome reduced its price for AZT by 20%.

Marion Banzhaf, from ACTUP New York, points out that the controversy over AZT is symptomatic of the failure of the US health care system as a whole. Thirty-seven million people have no health coverage, and the infant mortality rate in the US is the highest of all industrialised countries.

Banzhaf claims that women have known this all along, having waged a struggle over reproductive rights and faced discrimination in health care services. The clinical trial system for AZT operates exclusively with men, denying women with AIDS access to any appropriately researched drugs.

Kendall Thomas also describes a form of "medical apartheid" that exists in the US. Not only are African Americans and Latinos not included in the clinical trials of AZT, but health care funding is being selectively reduced for communities of colour.

In areas like Harlem, hospital facilities look like "wartime". One distraught activist confronted

the mayor of New York City with a story of a friend who languished on a cot in an emergency room hallway for nine days, only to die 48 hours after leaving hospital.

Despite the huge toll taken by AIDS, estimated at over 100,000 people in the US, activists in this film express display courage and optimism for the future. As one activist put it, "After we've all kicked the shit out of this illness, we're all going to be alive to kick the shit out of the system so it never happens again".

Tongues Untied is also cutting in its critique of the massive prejudice faced by lesbians and gays, particularly those of colour, in the US. It is also a meticulously constructed film in which Emmy-winning director Marlon Riggs pays close attention to style and detail. The film was awarded best documentary at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and best gay documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Using a combination of dialogue, interviews and the poetry of Essex Hemphill to get its message across, the film explores different experiences of gay African Americans and presents images of their lifestyles. Both of these films are well worth seeing.

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