Plague! We are in the middle of a f***ing plague, and you behave like this! Plague! 40 million infected people is a f***ing plague! -Larry Kramer, 1991
I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and early 1990s before moving to Georgia. I can remember certain things happening in the area in regards to the AIDS epidemic even though I was only in elementary school. I remember the stickers and posters with the red handprint on them. I remember going to the AIDS Quilt on The Mall in D.C. with my mom. But with all of those memories, I did not really know what was going on with epidemic then. Even now in my thirties, I did not even know about one of the major subjects in the new documentary by David France, How to Survive a Plague.
The central subject of How to Survive a Plague is the activism group, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). This group was one of the driving forces in the reform of drug trials and the development of drugs to treat and cure AIDS and HIV. The documentary relies heavily on archival footage taken by numerous people over the span of years between 1987 and 1995. Director David France put together this footage along with new interviews with those involved to create this documentary. France uses a sobering way of showing the passing years. Each year image has a counter next to it that ticks away the number of dead from AIDS. It begins in 1987 with 500,000 dead and ends in 1995 with 8.2 million dead.
France introduces us to a few activists in ACT UP and continually revisits them through the years. Peter Staley is the most referenced activist, but he was also a figurehead and spokesman for the group. This is a guy who used to trade stocks and gave up his job and his life when he contracted AIDS to try to save himself and others by becoming a full-time activist. He is a very well-spoken man. Bob Rafsky was a PR executive who also became heavily involved in ACT UP. He gained some notoriety in the press when he got into an argument with Bill Clinton on the campaign trail. Others that are in the documentary include Ann Northrup, Iris Long, PhD., Larry Kramer, Jim Eigo, Spencer Cox, Mark Harrington, and Garance Franke-Ruta. It is important to note that not everyone in ACT UP was gay or had AIDS/HIV.
The lengths that this organization went through to get the AIDS epidemic awareness is astounding, and I am embarrassed that I did not know about all they accomplished before seeing this film. They were able to convince the FDA, NIH, and drug companies to work with them on drug trials and bringing drugs to market faster. It is because of them that the drug cocktail now used to treat HIV/AIDS is what it is. ACT UP was not a group of doctors or scientist, but those with a common goal who were motivated enough to educate themselves and the public on what was happening with treatments.
Watching the film, it may seem that that the film is not as polished as it could be. However, France probably worked with unedited, grainy VHS tapes to put this film together. There is only so much you can do to make VHS look as good as a digital video recorder that is commonplace these days. I don’t think I would have liked the film as much if France had decided to only use the really good footage and employ interviews and re-creations to tell the story. There is something about seeing what happened in its original context that is able to translate the reality and urgency of the events.
Watching the documentary, you become connected to these real people and their stories. It is sobering to see that not all of them survive the disease. The fact is that most, if not all, knew they were going to die. The very end of the film brings those emotions home, and those still around today give some of the most poignant quotes about what they did, what their lives are like now, and their regrets.
I would like to point out the scene in the film that brought me to tears. In 1992, a group of activists brought the ashes of their loved ones to a protest that occurred during the same time as the AIDS Quilt. Among police barriers, they pushed to the fence of the White House and scattered the ashes on the lawn. To be able to give up the ashes of someone for a cause and to open eyes is quite powerful.
How to Survive a Plague documents an important part of history that not many will know about. I certainly did not. It is a film that could be shown in high school and college classes to those who were not even alive yet when the epidemic began. My generation needs to see this film, as I do not think it is common knowledge that ACT UP existed and still does. Activism of this kind affected millions of lives, and helped to save them. David France and all of the videographers who made this documentary possible are helping ensure that this piece of history is not forgotten.
I give How to Survive a Plague 4 “Silence=Death” out of 5.
by Sarah Ksiazek