To inspire even the most disillusioned among us. To show us our history. To startle us with remembering, or with seeing for the first time, the way things were less than thirty years ago. To galvanize a new generation into action.
Director David France has done all these things and more with his captivating and shocking film How to Survive a Plague. I say shocking not only because of its content, but because of the enormity and significance of the actions it captures, of which, I would deem it fair to say, my generation has a good deal of ignorance. This was the world when I was a child, I thought. How could I not have grown up steeped in this history?
How to Survive a Plague chronicles, almost exclusively through archival footage, AIDS activism in the late eighties and nineties by groups such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and the later offshoot TAG (Treatment Action Group). Many activists were themselves HIV-positive or already suffering the disease that gave them an average life expectancy of just 18 months after diagnosis. Through self-education, information sharing, public outreach and direct action, ACT UP transformed not only the political and social landscape regarding AIDS and the gay community but the health care system itself, innovating a faster road to market for drugs that prove efficacious.
One of the incredible aspects of this film is how much footage of the movement from the inside France was able to amass. Aside from contemporary interviews, archival news coverage, and an animation to illustrate how the HIV virus works, the entire story is told through the lenses of videographers, filmmakers, and home movie makers who were capturing the dramatic events and intimate moments as they happened. The personal video camera rose to prominence right alongside ACT UP, and the deliberate documentation of the group’s struggles and successes from within its ranks really gave birth to the age of video activism. In a talkback after the screening I attended at the IFC Center in New York, it was mentioned that much of this footage had been sitting in people’s closets on VHS tapes, and one of the corollary achievements of How to Survive is the digitizing of an immense historical treasure. This recovery of what producer Howard Gertler called, in an interview with Jonathan Kim, a “trove of footage,” and its significance for the civil rights movement puts this film in a class with The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975. In that same interview France says “Watching the film is almost like watching a documentary made years ago that we found on a shelf someplace. It’s not a story of people sitting in front of their bookcases remembering what it was like back then. It’s people experiencing it firsthand as it’s unfolding.”
If you’ve ever wondered if activism can really work, or felt the Sisyphean weight of hoping and working for change in toxic political times, this film will reaffirm your faith. It will also challenge you to do better. What we can learn from ACT UP is that learning itself is a key to power. Ordinary people became leading experts in the fight against AIDS by immersing themselves in the science and research, holding educational meetings and tackling difficult concepts communally. They were by no means scientists or medical professionals, and yet they guided scientific institutions toward revolutionary change by empowering themselves with knowledge. They also used equal parts confrontation and cooperation, organized around specific demands, and followed through on pledges to pay for any property damaged as a result of their protests. Modern activism owes many of its tactics and strengths to ACT UP’s pioneering, and seeing how its legacy has impacted movements such as Occupy is revelatory. One of the film’s major players, Peter Staley, recently spoke about effective activism in an interview for TIME Healthland, drawing comparisons and contrasts between ACT UP and the Occupy movement. “I think it always helps to have something you can actually accomplish in some sort of short time horizon or you won’t look like a movement with momentum,” he said. “[Occupy] didn’t have things they could win in the first six months.” He also compares the subgroup Occupy the SEC to ACT UP’s highly successful Treatment and Data Committee, praising their exhaustive research and analysis. “They’re doing brilliant work. They’ve had lots of business journal press, but the general public doesn’t really know about them.”
Beyond the film’s political and historical substance, it benefits from a well-constructed narrative that is at times heart-breaking but never exploitative. In addition to championing AIDS activism’s triumphs, How to Survive also delves into the movement’s own internal conflicts and splits, investing time in describing how even a united and committed group can suffer from in-fighting and tactical disagreements. One particularly powerful section of the film sees many of ACT UP’s strongest voices expressing regret about the organization’s main strategy of rushing drugs into circulation, realizing they had created a system that wasn’t working in they way they had hoped. Even so, leaving the theatre I was overcome by the magnitude of what these men and women were fighting for, and what they accomplished in the face of misinformation, fear, prejudice, and power. This film joins a canon of required viewing HIV/AIDS documentaries, including the early Academy Award winner Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, and last year’s San Francisco centered We Were Here. It stands out, however, for its focus on the national impact of ACT UP and TAG, the unearthing of its incredible footage, and the emotional and aspirational impact of seeing change as it happens.
Make every attempt to see How to Survive a Plague. It’s worth the drive to the nearest theatre screening. Find more info at the film’s website, SurviveAPlague.com.
Bottom Line: Act up. Fight back. Fight AIDS. This film about making change will surely change you.