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New films: Bill W. & How to Survive a Plague

Bill W.
Directed by Dan Carracino & Kevin Hanlon

A few weeks ago, the powers that be at the Crest Theatre decided to try a single day’s programming for this film – and the result was so overwhelmingly positive that they brought it back for a regular engagement. And it’s easy to see why so many people would be affected strongly by the story of Bill Wilson, the Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, a man who’s a hero to so many struggling and recovering addicts – although he would most likely have scoffed at such an idea and described himself as a drunk trying to get through his life. One day at a time.

His story is likely familiar to many, not because they know it but because they’ve lived through at least a portion of it, looking at the world through the bottom of a bottle. But to at least some extent, the most powerful aspect of this biographical tribute is not the personal recovery, or even the book and the program he wrote (some of which had earlier origins in the tenets of The Oxford Group), but the fact that Wilson essentially gave up his own life and the pursuit of any personal wealth or status in favor of the organization he founded. That said, there are moments in the early days when the need to depend on the generosity of AA members begins to sound somewhat like the L. Ron Hubbard story that was the inspiration for the recent film “The Master.”

But it is a tribute – with the story being told by people who are great friends or fans of Wilson. If challenged, they would probably point out that they also describe his failings but they manage to excuse them in the same breath. It’s a tribute tale that seems like it’s well worth telling, and the kind of relative selflessness that we don’t see very often, but it also feels like we’re only getting a part of a larger story. Surely there were people who might not have had such glowing opinions and the film never addresses the residual controversies associated with the prevalence of a program that is so steeped in religious or at least spiritual concepts and often prescribed by the courts.

And yet it’s still fascinating to hear how it went down: Wilson’s early expertise as a traveling business analyst, the critical events and relationships that were often accidental, and the book in which they sold shares before they wrote the first word and which has gone on to sell over 30 million copies. One of the key turning points in the growth of the organization came when a Saturday Evening Post reporter came to write what was expected to be a very negative story, but who stayed and wrote his own testament – and it’s easy to see why that would have happened.

However one feels about some of the political implications of the program now, it was an amazing development 60+ years ago, following a period in which alcoholics were treated like the mentally ill, in a time when that could result in lobotomies and forced sterilization. And remember that the organization was also founded shortly after the failed attempt to suppress alcohol consumption during Prohibition – and here was a man who actually managed to cure people of their drinking compulsion, or at least to control it. I just wish that it were one film in a series that didn’t all have quite such an insider tone.

 

How to Survive a Plague
Directed by David France

For those of us who didn’t witness it up close and personal, it’s hard to watch footage of people dying of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic and reconcile ourselves with how recent it all was. The images of wasted, frail bodies seem reminiscent of earlier times – and there’s a new level of complacency for many today that belies the fact that an AIDS diagnosis was an almost 100% certain death sentence, and a slow, painful one at that, for both the patient and their loved ones.

By 1987, half a million people had died of AIDS worldwide, just six years after it was first recognized by the Centers for Disease Control. But the rapid onset of the disease stood in stark contrast to the slow acceptance and support from elected officials and the heathcare industry, with hospital staff turning away the sick. And when the first mass produced drug, AZT, became available it cost $10,000/year and was so toxic that many patients couldn’t sustain the treatment.

It was a disease that primarily affected, in the early years, an already marginalized population – still vilified by many leaders elected to protect that and all other populations. With little action, at best, and open hostility, at worst, from those in positions to help, it was left to a growing cadre of self-educated and remarkably organized AIDS activists to push for new drug research and releases, to write treatment protocols, and force the issue.

“How to Survive a Plague” tells the story of ACT UP and its spin-off TAG (Treatment Action Group), two organizations that fought the system, the FDA, the catholic church, the National Institutes of Health, assorted politicians and Washington, and changed the landscape of AIDS the disease, as well as AIDS the issue. It’s a powerful film that documents a long fight with a great many casualties along the way, but also illustrates an effective model for action – with parallel fronts of mass action and targeted expertise.

 

Both films open today, exclusively at the Crest Theatre.

 

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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