A cogent docu with a solid throughline, “Sex in an Epidemic” traces the impact of AIDS on the gay community — from the terror, confusion and rampant misinformation at the outset to later struggles to sustain viable gay lifestyles and reclaim hard-won civil liberties. Activists recall times that have faded from public awareness, exploding myths and false assumptions along the way. Thus, pic’s in-depth history of “safe sex” includes the now-surprising fact that the concept needed to be invented from scratch (nobody knew what defined “safe”). Fascinating, informative film will be warmly welcomed by gay fests and educational venues worldwide.
Told largely by founders of various grassroots organizations that sprang up to cope with the AIDS outbreak, pic vividly evokes the collective shock caused by the so-called “mysterious cancer” decimating queer society just after gay political consciousness had triumphantly emerged from the closet. Indeed, many felt the disease was part of a conspiracy to demonize homosexuality: One interviewee remembers French philosopher Michel Foucault dismissing the new gay-targeted plague as a product of American puritanical thinking. Two months later, Foucault was dead.
Helmer Jean Carlomusto, a longtime AIDS activist, began documenting events early on, her footage spanning two decades. Pic mostly proceeds chronologically, focusing on problems gay leaders faced as they sought to cull and disseminate information in an atmosphere of rising conservatism and outright homophobia.
At first, ignorance reigned as to how the malady spread. Against this backdrop of uncertainty, gay leadership split into two distinct camps — one eager to sound alarm bells and the other reluctant to overly proscribe behavior. The former camp is personified, in extensive interviews, by Richard Berkowitz (protagonist of Daryl Wein’s documentary “Sex Positive”), who co-authored “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic,” the first attempt to tamp down homosexual practices in light of the scourge. Repping the other side is Dr. Larry Maas, who resisted feeding society’s paranoia by refusing to ban promiscuity without proper scientific data.
Covering Reagan’s election, the ascendancy of Christian fundamentalism and the belief that AIDS was God’s punishment for unnatural acts, Carlomusto excerpts televised pearls from Jerry Falwell and his brethren. Interviewees testify to the game-changing efficacy of the far right in sabotaging sensible health programs: Grassroots campaigns to educate the public about AIDS were sidetracked by impractical calls for celibacy, and condom distribution was denounced as immoral.
Carlomusto freely samples GMHC’s controversial 1985 video “Chance of a Lifetime,” an erotic celebration of safer sex through condom use and sensual ploys like “shrimping” (toe sucking), injecting playful tenderness back into sexual exchange. Graphic comics also cheekily promulgated safe sex — and were promptly castigated by Jesse Helms on the Senate floor.
Docu highlights the unshakable solidarity of the various factions combating AIDS. When Cosmopolitan published an article claiming women could not contract AIDS by sleeping with infected men, gay males protested in droves, while Carlomusto herself filmed the heated meeting between angry feminists and the author of the piece in the magazine’s offices.
“Epidemic” ends in a scattershot manner, as the depth and spontaneity of past activism makes present-day efforts come off as weak by comparison. The virus’ continuing lethal power, though, is reinforced by a chilling final montage noting the AIDS-related passing of nine of the docu’s interview subjects.