The most satisfying cinematic moment I've experienced all year occurs during the last 15 minutes of David France's documentary How To Survive a Plague. I don't even want to hint at what it is because it could risk depriving you of the rush it gave me. What works like a movie twist feels like an epiphany in this chronicle of the first nine years of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. Just know that if you care about social justice and gay rights, you should see this film. And if you don't know much about ACT UP's history, you will be wowed.
What could have been a dry retelling from the key talking heads who in fact survived the plague, is instead a briskly paced showing of how things were. France, a first-time filmmaker and journalist who has covered AIDS since the very early days, combed through over 700 hours of footage shot by over 30 sources involved in the movement to assemble this film. How To Survive a Plague is a remarkable capsule, not just of ACT UP's protests, civil disobedience and achievements, but it's also snapshot of a nine-year period (starting in 1987) of New York history, during which what we think of as citizen journalism today was getting its start.
"They were the first movement to pick it up and do their own self-documentation in this video way," France told me when we talked by phone earlier this week. He referenced the manner in which Civil Rights, feminist and anti-war movements documented themselves (photography). ACT Up, however, helped kick off "the modern era of capturing the moving image" via camcorders.
"Their motivation [for filming themselves] was principally that they knew what was happening was historic," he said. "They knew that many of them were going to die and they wanted to document what those days were like so that we wouldn't forget."
How To Survive a Plague contains some devastating footage. It inspired Frank Bruni to open his gushing review in the New York Times with, "I sat down to watch How to Survive a Plague, a new documentary about the history of the AIDS epidemic, expecting to cry, and cry I did…" I, on the other hand, didn't. Not much, although the scene of performance artist Ray Navarro in the throes of AIDS attempting to be upbeat ("Lots of other blind, deaf men have lived happy lives. What the hell. Life is worth living. Isn't it?") is almost unwatchably sad. But How To Survive a Plague isn't an AIDS documentary and it isn't grim. "It's a story of disenfranchised outsiders faced with a terrible challenge who find a way to surmount the insurmountable," is how France summarizes it.
Plague is a story of realized hope, of smart people who made themselves smarter, of concerned people who knew they were right about the AIDS epidemic and the government's apathy toward it. These people educated themselves on medicine ("They all had to become scientists to some degree," notes one participant), they attended hearings and spoke up, they integrated themselves into the FDA's drug-approval process and they didn't stop. "Activists created a system that was able to do everything faster, better, cheaper, more ethically and more effectively," says a key player. The ultimate result of their efforts was the development and mass use of protease inhibitors, the life-saving medication that has been making people with HIV test undetectable since 1996.
How To Survive a Plague opens today in select cities around the country (including New York), just a few days after the Occupy movement's first anniversary. It's hard not to think of that movement when watching this chronicle of an earlier group of young New Yorkers who were motivated, visible and most importantly, effective. Occupy may seem underwhelming in comparison, but France warns of dismissing a movement too early.
"Occupy, at its first anniversary, is not too different than ACT UP was at its first anniversary," he told me. "We see at the beginning of How to Survive a Plague a movement that began as just an opposition movement. We see them pour out into the streets at City Hall and just flop down in the road. But over that nine years that are covered in the film, you start to see the refinement and development of strategy. It's more than just opposition. I know that a lot has been said about Occupy's lack of demands, its inability to focus on a message beyond this 99 percent idea, and I think if we look at the history of ACT UP, it would caution us to be more patient with Occupy and to allow the people on the ground to develop an idea of, not just what they don't want, but what they do want."
Ed Koch recently referenced ACT UP's protest during mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1989 in his op-ed defense of Pussy Riot's arrest. He called the actions of the musicians a "hate crime," implying that ACT UP were guilty of the same and dismissing them as "unjustifiably angry with John Cardinal O'Connor," who had just made the preposterous claim that condoms would facilitate the spread of AIDS. Some people didn't get it and they never would. The Plague scenes of Jesse Helms publicly spitting venom at gays are infuriating, as is one of our first President Bush, who explains that AIDS research was getting a high proportion of money "per capita," despite there being little hope of effective treatment at that time. It's as if he thought that the value of human lives -(gay human lives)- was finite. The condescension toward gays and ACT UP specifically was abundant.
"[ACT UP] was not able to overcome those easy dismissals: ‘Oh they're just a bunch of kids,' ‘They're just angry,' ‘They just want to stop traffic and disrupt ordinary life because they've got nothing else to do,'" explained France. "That parallels so closely to the way members of Occupy have been dismissed as shirtless, jobless anarchists. I think you could go and lay the headlines from 1987, 1988, 1989 right over the headlines about Occupy and see that the same thing is happening."
But beyond modern parallels, How To Survive a Plague is valuable as a history lesson in a time when people seem to have little motivation to seek one out. Gays can easily take for granted our progress, our ability to live openly, our current relationship with HIV, which for so many is no longer a killer but a nuisance. That relative ease wouldn't be possible without the work done by groups like ACT UP.
"My idea was to help a new and younger audience that wasn't there know what it was like for those of us who were, which is to live in a world of really painful uncertainty," France said. "We didn't know from week to week who was going to make it. That was a literal fact. There's no hyperbole there. It's one thing to try and tell somebody that, but what this archive of footage allowed me to do was to show it and allow the audience to wonder from frame to frame who would live and who would die."
How To Survive a Plague is dedicated to Doug Gould, France's lover who died from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992. I wondered if he would have made this film were it not for that deeply personal connection to the epidemic.
"I [already] had that personal connection," he answered. "Anybody in the community did. AIDS threatened us all and you didn't have to have it in your bed to have it in your life. We were all called upon to do something. You couldn't not do something."