Director and producer David France chronicles the efforts of HIV/AIDS activists in the '80s and '90s in his documentary How to Survive a Plague. Above, AIDS activist Peter Staley is arrested in a scene from the film.

10 to Watch for World AIDS Day: Screening the Pandemic

Stories from the AIDS pandemic that can teach us lots in 2020

5 mins read

With the COVID-19 pandemic undergoing a brutal second wave, many of us will likely give this year’s World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) only a passing thought. But given the strange parallels between both pandemics, in particular the bizarre political responses, scapegoating, and outright denials, watching an insightful documentary on the AIDS/HIV pandemic would be time well spent. And since lockdowns mean we have loads more time to screen things, here, in no particular order, are ten highly-recommended documentaries on the topic of HIV/AIDS.


Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989)

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman won a well-earned Oscar for this feature-length entry about a cross-section of people dealing with their HIV-positive status. The film does an amazing job of humanizing the statistics. Author and activist Vito Russo is one of the people profiled. [On Kanopy]

Fire in the Blood (2013)

While the mid-‘90s saw huge breakthroughs with the development of drug cocktails that could extend the lives of those living with HIV, this film tells the devastating lack of reach these drugs had in developing nations due to the pharma companies that held them back. It’s a crucial postscript to the euphoria that came, a time when many declared an end to the AIDS crisis. [On Kanopy]

Killing Patient Zero (2019)

In this film, director Laurie Lynd explores the myth of Patient Zero (aka Quebec flight attendant Gaetan Dugas), the mythical Typhoid Mary who was scapegoated as the person who brought HIV to North America. Lynd’s insightful doc examines this legacy and corrects the historical record. (Conflict-of-interest alert: I’m in this film.) [ On Crave.]

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012)

Jim Hubbard’s film is a vital history of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), an activist organization that is credited with changing the course of activism itself. Luckily, someone thought to videotape the meetings of desperate AIDS activists as they met in Manhattan halls to discuss the devastating impact of the pandemic and to strategize in their war against the indifference of governments and corporations. [On Kanopy]

How to Survive a Plague (2012)

David France got an Oscar nomination for this documentary, which also told the story of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group). Another imperative piece of activist history. [On Hoopla]

No Sad Songs (1985)

This short documentary by Nik Sheehan is the first of its kind to address the AIDS epidemic. It’s an incredibly eclectic approach that includes personal anecdotes, professional testimonies and artistic responses to the crisis.

Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993)

A gay couple face down their final months as they succumb to AIDS. They capture everything on video. An intensely powerful and devastating film, this is an unblinking look at the disease at its cruelest. [Available in full below.]

Pandemic: Facing AIDS (2003)

This doc benefits from its scope, as the epidemic is looked at through the lens of people on five continents. The series illustrates how health care systems around the world have addressed the crisis.

[Available on DVD.]

Inside Lara Roxx (2011)

Filmmaker Mia Donovan spent several years chronicling the life of Roxx, a young Quebec aspiring porn starlet who went to the epicentre of the business in California, only to contract HIV. The film captures Roxx as she struggles to rebuild her life. [Rent via Vimeo.]

Inside Lara Roxx from EyeSteelFilm Distribution on Vimeo.

Memories of a Penitent Heart (2016)

Cecilia Aldarondo digs into her family history, learning about her late creative uncle, only to find out that he was largely alienated from the family, due to being gay and ultimately contracting AIDS. An extremely powerful first-person film about the staggering impact of HIV/AIDS. [Available to rent on Vimeo.]

Memories of a Penitent Heart from Cecilia Aldarondo on Vimeo.


A long-time contributing editor at POV, Hays teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. His articles on documentary have appeared in Cineaste, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Toronto Star.

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