How To Survive A Plague

An amazing movie, and I did a Q&A with its director.

Toward the end of David France’s extraordinary documentary about the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT-UP, and its off-shoot the Treatment Action Group, or TAG, playwright and ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer says, “We, ACT-UP, got those drugs out there. It’s the proudest achievement that the gay population of this world can ever claim.” Kramer, who is notorious for his incendiary rhetoric, is not being hyperbolic. If not for ACT-UP’s constant, innovative, and angry activism in the late ‘80s and early ’90s, the speed at which the FDA and NIH developed, tested and approved drugs for HIV and AIDS would have remained snail-like, leading to even more pain, suffering and death than AIDS was already causing.

ACT-UP created such amazing (artful, iconic, even entertaining) public disturbances that it became impossible for the media to ignore the federalgovernment’s inaction on the epidemic; in turn, this pressured politicians and bureaucrats to act. Perhaps more impressively, by becoming experts on the science of AIDS and methods of scientific researchTAG forced the American scientific community to transform wholly the way that it did medical research. While these stories have been told before in academic or near-academic books by people like former UCSD professor Steven Epstein (in his classic book Impure Science), before How To Survive A Plague, the essential, instructive, and inspiring tale of ACT-UP had not been told to the general public in the kind of perfect encapsulation that is France’s documentary.

France, a journalist and first-time filmmaker, uses the stories of two key figures in ACT-UP to structure the film’s narrative, which he carefully and brilliantly sutured together with old home movies, archival news video and new interviews. After developing AIDS, Peter Staley, a boyishly handsome bond trader, harnesses his fear and rage and transforms himself into a full-time AIDS activist who ends up delivering a barn-burning speech at the 6th International AIDS Conference in San Francisco. Robert Rafsky, a public relations executive who along with formernews producer Ann Northrup help make ACT-UP the media-savvy organization it became famous for, is the center of the second arc, which focuses on his family, his young daughter, his deteriorating health and increasing anger.

While figures such as Kramer, Mark Harrington (who ran and runs TAG), and then teenage Garance Franke-Ruta (a friend of mine who is now the politics editor of The Atlantic Online) figure prominently in interviews and clips, it is the astonishingly intimate archival video of Staley and Rafksy that create the emotional heft that isn’t already bleeding out through the imagery of people sick with AIDS-related diseases and people protesting the corporate profiteering and government foot-dragging.

And, yes, How to Survive a Plague is a tear-jerker. But it is not the kind of tear-jerker that the other great AIDS documentaries – like Common Threads,We Were Here, and Silverlake Life – are. There are moments of profound grief and existential dread, but by the end of the film Kramer’s pronouncement is just a statement that most viewers should be thinking but may not quite be able to articulate. The success of ACT-UP and the success of the gay community in standing up for itself, taking care of itself, shifting human history and ending a holocaust is amazing, inspiring and heroic. How To Survive A Plague is a great historical document, but it is also an instructional film for anyone intent on changing the world.

How To Survive A Plague
Directed by David France
Written by David France, Todd Woody Richman and Tyler H. Walk
Features Peter Staley, Robert Rafsky and Mark Harrington
On Demand on Cox Cable
At Landmark Hillcrest
Not rated

And here’s the Q&A:

Q: Why did you decide that this film was needed? Why tell the story of ACT-UP now?

A: David France: For some time, I’d been thinking that someone needs to look back at the plague years and make sense of them. The majority of the work on AIDS [such asAnd the Band Played On, Angels in America, The Normal Heart, and Paul Monette’s books] came in the middle years. Those chronicled that uncertainty, that feeling that everyone is going to die. But no one had told the story of how we got out of there. It’s a hero’s tale. It’s uplifting. A ton of good stuff happened during those years, and almost all of it thanks to these guys [like Peter Staley,Mark HerringtonRobert Rafsky, etc.] Someone told me while I was working on the film, “We had a lot of fun when everyone was dying.” The community came together; there was a lot of communal love. There was a wicked sense of humor. There was a new idea of what life was. And that was exciting.

Q: The old home movies that much of the film is based on are incredible. Where did you find it?

A: AIDS made its first appearance in 1981 and the camcorder came out in 1982. It was suddenly damn cheap to use video. And by 1987, it was fully embraced by activists who needed to tell the story no one else was telling. We were still being ignored by Newsweek and The New York Times. So people in the movementturned the cameras on [themselves] to show that they were not just victims ofAIDS but vibrant human beings fighting for their lives.

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