There have been a few AIDS activist films out recently, and a few more are on the way, but filmmaker David France's documentary How to Survive a Plague is the one that's going to hit hardest. I watched it with high expectations, and it still managed to blow me away.
Many people, perhaps the activists themselves, aren't aware of how AIDS activism of the 1980's and 90's connected along the dots. And this is How to Survive a Plague's greatest strength: collating, connecting and communicating ACT UP and TAG's timeline into a cohesive, compelling narrative... showing how their actions helped guide events that made HIV and AIDS more or less not a death sentence for generations to come, much faster than it might have happened otherwise.
ACT UP's history is actually a part of America's story that most people don't know about, and by telling it, How to Survive a Plague provides a strategic template that any serious political activist should study.
The AIDS epidemic was preceded by its shadow. Adrift in the unknown, AIDS activists were motivated not by revolution, but fear. From its stark opening footage of people with AIDS in hospital beds, the film communicates the epidemic from those who braved its earliest days, relaying their accounts like battle stories.
According to news footage in the film, at the time of ACT UP's famous FDA action in 1988 (when activists tried to clobber a reaction out of the FDA on their slow drug approval process) only 1/3 of Americans felt sympathy for gays who had contracted HIV.
"The government has the resources to deal with this epidemic, but it won't do it unless we force them to!" An activist pleads from inside a paddy wagon in footage from the demo. In the background, outside the FDA's temporarily shut-down Maryland headquarters, "die-in" protesters yell at news cameras while being carried to police cars, colored smoke bombs go off, Gran Fury banners wave, and activists climb on roofs next to confused secretaries peering out of dim office windows.
It's gripping footage. A lot of the film's sequences are. Early in the film is a series of videotaped, mid-80's underground meetings of smiling people with AIDS, illegally sharing and distributing drugs that may keep them alive, then sharing their hopes with the camera.
David France and team reportedly sorted though 700 hours of video, assembling the film almost entirely from footage shot by activist videographers, cable access show hosts, downtown independent filmmakers, or anyone who recorded these events as they happened (in days before cell phones and digital cameras, ACT UP and TAG members were savvy enough to to film themselves... a lot). The technique gives the film a surprisingly modern feel. Its inconsistent, hand-held, pixelated video texture mirrors the patchwork feel of streaming iPhone and internet YouTube footage we're used to today.
Weekly ACT UP meetings, captured here in all their ragged glory, ultimately convey people getting organized in the face of the abyss; speaking, voting, listening, laughing... fighting. These meetings became a community in their day. With nowhere to turn, many impacted by the disease made pilgrimages to these downtown gatherings.
"In the face of AIDS, we became our own organizers," one activist says in the film. "We became our own caregivers, therapists, pharmacies... we had our own libraries."
Like any good documentary about a story, How to Survive a Plague has its villains. Mayor Ed Koch, who recently made news comparing Russian punk activist group Pussy Riot to ACT UP, doesn't bade well in the film.
But Koch could be right. ACT UP's Stop the Church action at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1989 remains shocking as portrayed here. While protests raged outside, ACT UP members planted in the congregation in Sunday dress slowly conducted a "die-in" in the cathedral's main isle, having to be carried out by police one by one while shouting "Stop killing us!" as Cardinal O'Conner tried to carry on the service. Was ACT UP justified in disrespecting the Catholic Church? The highly influential O'Conner couldn't look worse in the film, with archival footage of him condemning the use of contraceptives on moral grounds at a time when AIDS was the leading cause of death for men under 40 in big cities. Maybe lets just say it was justifiable for ACT UP to poke the Catholic Church in the eye? I remember watching news footage of this event in my living room in Texas, along with my disapproving family in 1989 (months later I would move to NYC).
The film has footage of Jesse Helms promoting willing indifference for people with HIV on the floor of the Senate in 1991, glowering at the top of his lungs that AIDS activists need to stop shouting at everyone. When he's schooled by a fellow Senator on 1st Amendment rights, he looks at the floor and stumbles for words. That year, members of TAG wrapped a giant inflatable condom over Helms' Arlington, VA home, with the words on it, "A CONDOM TO STOP UNSAFE POLITICS. HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS."
A peripheral impression one gets from How to Survive a Plague is how much ACT UP's historical reputation will probably increase with younger generations. People like Jesse Helms and his ilk? Not so much.
But How to Survive a Plague is really all about its heroes. In one of the meeting scenes, ACT UP founder Larry Kramer dramatically climaxes the film, lashing out at members of the group arguing on the floor in a spine-chilling verbal diatribe that invokes the film's title.
Peter Staley becomes the documentary's unofficial protagonist. He's introduced as a symbol of ACT UP's transformative powers. In 1988 Staley quit his Wall Street job, closeted and HIV positive, after being handed a flyer by ACT UP. He went on to become a full-time activist. The documentary follows him from there... to today (a place he never thought he'd be).
Staley's highlight in the film is his address to the 1990 International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, giving a condemning speech on the U.S. immigration policy for people with HIV. He initiates a powerful across-the-aisle moment, inviting his fellow activists to the front, joining them and the scientists at the conference, usually at odds, into one giant auditorium rumbling with applause for a shared goal.
Core ACT UP member Bob Rafsky also features well, giving the documentary some of its most touching moments, but mostly explosive soundbites.
"See this spot on my forehead?" he shouts at a researcher in the small front office of Daiichi pharmaceuticals, handcuffed to other activists protesting their slow development of an anti-Kaposi's sarcoma drug. "Soon it will take over my body and kill me. You're killing me, you in your suit and tie! Are you coming to my funeral?!"
Rafsky leaves most of his targets speechless. Except for Bill Clinton, featured in the film arguing heatedly with Rafsky in a now-famous segment. The public spat made the news, turning AIDS into a campaign issue for a pre-elected Clinton during his run against George Bush in 1992.
Midway through, the film slowly picks up on the stories of several people from ACT UP's Treatment and Data Committee. T&D were an important link in ACT UP's second phase, advocating treatment and research, eventually employing an "inside/out" strategy of protesting but also communication directly with targets and key groups. When T&D's practice of working alongside the enemy became controversial within ACT UP's larger populace, T&D split off and became the more compact Treatment Action Group (TAG). The last third of the film follows their trails and tribulations.
There's a lot of blood and guts in How to Survive a Plague, literally and figuratively. There's also a lot of scientific jargon. But there are jolts of sardonic humor as well. Often coming from 20-year-old footage, these moments achieve a hilariously Simpsons-like level of prophecy.
I had to take several deep breaths to stop laughing at the footage of Peter Staley on Crossfire, opposite Pat Buchanan (which quickly cuts from footage of protesters being nearly trampled by policemen on horses).
"Mr. Staley, you have AIDS," begins the show's host. (awkward pause) "And I'm sorry." he adds. (another awkward pause). Staley goes on to answer Buchanan's culture-war accusations methodically, leaving him doddering towards a station break.
I myself was a member of ACT UP, and helped with many TAG actions, from 1990-'92, and I have a few small cameos in the film. For me and the thousands of others who participated in AIDS activism during this time, the captured moments in How to Survive a Plague are reminders of the importance of what everyone participated in and fought for, but are also attached to personal memories. I remember things like desperately trying to pat the dirt around a small Spanish conquistador garden ornament I knocked over in Jesse Helms' front garden while adjusting a rope during TAG's condom action (we were trying not to damage anything), or playing charades with lesbians in the paddy wagon (I lost) as it transported us from 42nd Street to NYC's Precinct 1 after ACT UP's Day of Desperation action at Grand Central Station, or kissing activist Drew Beaver in front of a glaring police barricade guarding an at-home George Bush at his vacation retreat during ACT UP's Kennebunkport invasion, or the other activists being angry with me for volunteering to carry a smoke bomb in my bag (that got us into extra trouble later during our court appearance) after TAG's Hoffmann-La Roche headquarters action, or driving back in a van from New Jersey after TAG's Daiichi office zap listening to Bob Rafsky's opinions on everything but AIDS and politics (like his fond memories of 80's NYC nightclubs, and his admiration for the late cabaret performer John Sex... he even had shout-y opinions about those subjects!) I miss Bob!
What ultimately made the biggest impression on me about How to Survive a Plague are its faces. Hundreds, even thousands of people's video-recorded faces, taped at different times and places, swoosh and rush across the shaky screen non-stop throughout the course of the film. All of them have varying expressions of urgency. Where are they now?
If anything comes out of How to Survive a Plague, I hope it's inspiration to younger generations. I'm sure the film will be popular enough. I urge everyone to see it.
ACT UP can never be repeated, exactly. Although the type of health crisis that lead to its call-to-arms, sadly, could happen again in the world. It's sobering to hope that if a similar plague does occur in the future... the inspiration behind a new group of people rising to stand together and fight might, once again, be fear.
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