Small Town Rage


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Small Town Rage
"David Hylan and Raydra Hall's gently paced documentary is very much a small town story, part local history lesson, part memorial to those who didn't make it."

When you picture activists, you probably think of city dwellers, of crowded streets where protestors hand out flyers and urban squares where demonstrations take place. The stereotypical image of LGBT life is also urban, given the tendency for young people facing stigma to leave their small communities in search of somewhere refreshingly anonymous. But in the 1980s, when HIV was spreading unchecked across America, it showed no mercy to the smaller places; it exposed communities that even many gay people had not known were there. And in the small town of Shreveport, Louisiana, one community decided to fight back.

David Hylan and Raydra Hall's gently paced documentary is very much a small town story, part local history lesson, part memorial to those who didn't make it. Five members of the core group Act Up Shreveport survive, and the narrative is structured around interviews with them, illustrated by photographs taken at the time, snippets of newspaper articles and archive footage. Inevitably, parts of it are distressing and very downbeat - even decades later it's not easy to talk about losing so many friends, or about the prejudice encountered when trying to do something about it - but overall this an inspiring story about courageous people who never let their small numbers diminish the faith they had in their ability to bring about change.

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Inspired by Act Up in New York City, and by the various other chapters opening up in the nations major cities, the Shreveport group started out with just three members but quickly grew, passing itself off as a book club in order to get meeting space - this was not the sort of town where moot people acknowledged the existence of gay people, let alone wanted to make contact with them at a time when it was widely believed (despite science determining otherwise) that one could catch HIV just from touching someone or breathing the same air. But there were some straight allies, there from the outset, and the film is careful to acknowledge their involvement.

Unlike the recent How To Survive A Plague, an otherwise strong portrayal of the New York group which was criticised for its narrow focus on white gay men, Small Town Rage looks at the impact of AIDS right across the community, moving on from the stage at which gay men were mysteriously dying to that at which women - particularly black women - were dying in large numbers without officialdom being willing to acknowledge that they were suffering from the same disease. There's a lot of focus on battles with the medical establishment, with the doctor who helped the group developing a broad, gleeful smile as he reminisces about the tricks he used to extract medicines from a system unwilling to help.

Also present here are ethical questions about whether or not it's ever ethical to out someone - an argument that has grown more pertinent since the film was made - and musings on the cost of doing so to the other people involved. Big things can begin in small places. Similarly, when a small film takes on a subject with big implications, it can become important to a much wider community. Despite the rage in its name, which is palpable as the interviewees recall how hard some politicians fought to let their friends keep dying - this is a film whose most striking qualities are its warmth and humility. But it is a mouse with quite a roar.

Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2017
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A documentary examining the work and influence of ACT UP Shreveport in the conservative Deep South.

Director: David Hylan, Raydra Hall

Writer: David Hylan

Starring: Lance Bass, Robert Darrow, Deborah Allen

Year: 2016

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: US


Glasgow 2017

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