When the late Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, saw How To Survive a Plague, journalist/director David France’s Oscar-nominated documentary about ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) New York, he wrote a review for his local neighborhood newspaper. The review was not just a rave but recommended the activists profiled receive Presidential Medals of Freedom! Koch didn’t mention those same people and many others spent much time (including a demonstration documented at the beginning of the film) protesting his administration’s criminally inadequate response to the AIDS crisis. Some of the people he praised in his review, including one of the founders of ACT UP, Larry Kramer, have called him a “murderer.”
Koch is an extreme example of the mainstream’s counterintuitive embrace of this film in particular and ACT UP in general. Although we see video of hateful, reactionary Jesse Helms spewing venom toward the group from the floor of the U.S. Senate we would never know most mainstream (and even some of the gay press’) coverage of ACT UP actions, like the one disrupting a service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral (to protest the Catholic Church’s stance on safer sex) or the one shutting down the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — archival footage from both actions is part of the film– was far from laudatory.
Still, France’s overview, fortified by his work on AIDS issues in the gay press during the crisis years, is impressive even to those of us who were there. Though I never attended ACT UP meetings I took part in my city’s ACT UP demonstrations (“demos”), did safer sex outreach with ACT UP members and went to the huge Kennebunkport demo, shown in the film, where George H.W. Bush was hung in effigy.
In the beginning of Plague intertitles and footage of people with AIDS close to the end of their lives set the scene, then archival video (including interviews) from ACT UP’s own media collective takes over most of the narrative. We see a loud, crowded meeting of the group where an action is planned and then the action itself, ending with activists being carted off one-by-one, screaming chants all the way to the police wagon. The film captures in this demonstration and the ones it shows later the camaraderie, exuberance and carnival-like atmosphere of ACT UP’s brand of activism, so necessary in an epidemic which devastated everyone in its path.
AIDS decimated the population of gay and bisexual men during the period covered in Plague, and I’m not sure most young queers realize the effect that loss still has on our community. In the film, I noticed the t-shirts many of the activists wore (the film repeatedly captures on many bodies the unisex, activist uniform of: a t-shirt, motorcycle jacket, jeans and Doc Martins) were unmistakably designed by acclaimed artist Keith Haring (which he did as a fundraiser for ACT UP: he also makes a brief, wordless appearance in a demonstration in the film). The music in Plague is by cellist and vocalist Arthur Russell. Both men died of AIDS in the early nineties. They make up one small corner of the heart of queer culture lost during that time period.
France expertly pieces together newsreel footage and present-day interviews, but for most of the story he culled hundreds of hours of ACT UP’s own electrifying videotape, some of which is also included in United in Anger another film released in 2012 about ACT UP New York. Audiences should see both, because at least as many riveting films could be made about the AIDS crisis as have been made about World War II.
I’ve read some blog criticism that How To Survive a Plague is the rich, white, male version of United in Anger. In contrast to Plague,Anger spotlights many more HIV-positive women and women of color in ACT UP as well as men of color. It also makes clear that part of the schism (also documented in Plague) between ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group (which helped develop protocols for drug trials and accelerated drug approval by working with pharmaceutical companies) was because the latter was made up mostly of white, gay men. But since Plague is, in the end, about (spoiler alert) those who survived HIV, its focus on privileged, white, gay men, while not enviable, is inevitable.
Part of what galvanized these men into action was their outrage that even though they had been bond traders, movie producers, PR executives and Ivy League graduates, because they were gay (or bisexual) and because they were HIV-positive, the medical establishment and the government still treated them as if they were scum. The film documents in interviews with them as well as scientists their tireless work. We see, toward the beginning, a member of the drug buyer’s club rattle off a laundry list of medications before saying, “None of which work, by the way.” Toward the end, years later, we see how the Treatment Action Group helped bring to market the protease inhibitors and combination drug therapies that continue to extend the lives of many people with HIV (at least those with access to these drugs) today.
Those drugs have not eradicated AIDS, but changed it from a virus that killed everyone it infected (we see one man quietly recite the ACT UP chant “ACT UP. Fight back. Fight AIDS,” to end the eulogy he gives at a fellow ACT UP member’s public funeral procession, then see his own obituary in the newspaper) to a disease that many people can now live with for decades.
One of the most moving scenes in the film is close to the end when we see the survivors (many of whom we had seen only in archival footage up to this point) in a series of long, silent close-ups, as they are now, all of those twenty years etched onto their faces and the wrinkles, jowls, grey hair and aging itself becomes a triumph, as it rarely is on American movie screens.