While the effects of HIV/AIDS across the globe have inspired hundreds of international features and documentaries over the years—including Oscar-nominated titles like Philadelphia (1993), Longtime Companion (1990), and Dallas Buyers Club (2013)—the vast majority seem to go largely unseen.
Some of these essential works never made it past LGBTQ film festivals, niche arthouse engagements, or VHS releases, fading into obscurity for decades like Cyril Collard’s confessional 1992 feature Savage Nights, which won four César Awards, France’s Oscar equivalent, but has never been released stateside in any digital format. Fortunately, streaming and VOD services are making some of these powerful and underrated films available again.
To commemorate World AIDS Day, here are 10 excellent under-the-radar titles that tackle unique aspects of HIV/AIDS history—including one starring RuPaul as a Robin Hood-like bandit!
The first American narrative feature about AIDS—preceding Longtime Companion by five years—director Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s seminal indie drama tracks the friendship between graduate student David (David Schachter), who volunteers to be a "buddy" to AIDS-stricken activist Robert (Geoff Edholm). Bressan died from AIDS complications two years later. Long unavailable, the film received a Blu-ray release in 2018.
Where to Watch: Kanopy
Parting Glances (1986)
Bill Sherwood’s witty gay dramedy about a young NYC gay couple (Richard Ganoung and John Bolger) helped make a star out of Steve Buscemi, who played a sarcastic New Wave musician with AIDS still pining for his ex-boyfriend-turned-caregiver. Sherwood was also claimed by AIDS in 1990, but his sole feature inspired prolific queer producer Christine Vachon, who served as his assistant editor. “I’m kind of amazed at how well Parting Glances stands up,” she said in a 2015 ACT UP Oral History Project interview. “It really does.”
Red Ribbon Blues (1995)
Just before the emergence of protease inhibitors, this caper dramedy addressed the greediness of Big Pharma and the difficulty of accessing potentially life-saving medications. Both out of drag, RuPaul and John “Lypsinka” Epperson played Duke and Harold, a gay couple racing against time to get their hands on an insanely expensive drug that can stop HIV from developing into AIDS. Duke teams up with HIV-positive painter Troy (Paul Mercurio) and waitress Darcy (Debi Mazar) to rob pharmacies of their stash and share the spoils with the needy. With HIV/AIDS activists still fighting price hikes that make HIV prevention drugs inaccessible to low-income populations, this remains a timely watch.
Where to Watch: Tubi
Shanghai Panic (2001)
Adapted by director Andrew Y-S Cheng from rebellious mainland China author Mian Mian’s 2000 novel Candy, this episodic indie revolves around a clique of ephedrine-popping Shanghai youths, including closeted ex-ballet dancer Bei (Zhinan Li), who announces that he’s suffering from AIDS symptoms. While his uneducated friends are panicked, his health scare motivates Bei to confront his longtime crush. Despite guerilla-style production values and sparse dialogue, there’s a raw truth to the representation of fear and ignorance in a country that would prefer to sweep the pandemic under the carpet.
Where to Watch: Mubi
The Witnesses (2007)
Set in early 1980s Paris, gay French filmmaker André Téchiné’s sensual and gripping drama focuses on a group of close friends, including gay middle-aged doctor Adrien (Michel Blanc) and bisexual vice squad detective Mehdi (Sami Bouajila). Handsome teenager Manu (Johan Libéreau) unwittingly brings HIV into their lives, and Téchiné is decidedly unsentimental when tragedy hits in the final act. (Bouajila also played an HIV-positive gay man in 2000’s The Adventures of Felix, which has yet to appear on streaming services.)
Where to Watch: Criterion Channel
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008)
Ira Sachs’ 2012 masterpiece Keep the Lights On prominently featured the music of late queer musician Arthur Russell, whose genre-busting work ran the gamut from folk to underground disco. “Arthur was not tied to any of these styles, Arthur was tied to Arthur,” remarks one interviewee in Matt Wolf’s revealing portrait of the tortured genius, who died from AIDS in 1992. Listen to his otherworldly tunes and you’ll become a stan like Robyn, who covered his track “Tell You (Today)” on the 2014 HIV/AIDS fundraiser album Red Hot + Arthur Russell.
Where to Watch: Tubi
Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves (2012)
Based on a trilogy of Swedish novels and set in early 1980s Stockholm, this three-episode series revolves around a tight-knit group of gay friends—including inexperienced teen Rasmus (Adam Palsson), boyfriend Benjamin (Adam Lundgren), and trash-talking den mother Paul (Simon J. Berger)—as the emerging plague devastates their circle like an invisible serial killer. Sweden may be regarded as a liberal oasis, but this is an unflinching time capsule that addresses the country's rampant homophobia, religious fundamentalism, and ignorance about AIDS.
Where to Watch: MHz
United in Anger (2012)
Covering some of the same ground as David France’s How to Survive a Plague, director Jim Hubbard’s passionate but matter-of-fact documentary revisits the timeline and world-changing actions of NYC’s ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) through interviews culled from Hubbard and co-producer Sarah Schulman’s ACT UP Oral History Project, plus a trove of archival footage.
Where to Watch: Amazon
After Louie (2017)
Suffering from survivor’s guilt and rage in wake of the AIDS crisis, Sam (Alan Cumming), a jaded 50-something activist and artist, becomes involved with Braeden (Zachary Booth), a younger gay man who lives stigma-free in an open relationship with his HIV-positive boyfriend (Anthony Johnston). The debut feature from ACT UP founding member and visual artist Vincent Gagliostro, After Louie co-stars LGBTQ icons Justin Vivian Bond, Wilson Cruz, David Drake, Joey Arias, and Everett Quinton.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime
Paul Haggis (Crash) and Dan Krauss co-directed this astonishing doc about the first hospital ward dedicated to AIDS patients. Opened in San Francisco General Hospital in 1983, the ward accommodated victims of the still-mysterious plague with staff offering comfort, kindness, and touch while tending to what one former nurse describes as, medically, “a horror show.” Julianne Moore recently hosted a screening to draw attention to this film, which gives overdue recognition to these humane heroes.
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime
Pictured: Zachary Booth and Alan Cumming in After Louie.