John Moran on a film chronicling the gay community’s response in the USA to the AIDS epidemic, which screened at the recent GAZE Film Festival.
How to Survive a Plague (2012, David France) chronicles the gay community’s response in the USA to the AIDS epidemic, focusing on the group ACT UP, based in New York, from 1987 to 1996. France worked as a journalist in the 1980s and ‘90s. He weaves together the stories of several key individuals prominent in a campaign that depended on the participation of thousands of people.
The film opens in New York in 1987, year 6 of the AIDS epidemic. France identities New York as its epicentre. Ed Koch, the mayor, attempts to answer criticisms of New York City’s official response to the crisis. He tries to defend his characterisation of protesters, seen chanting, “Healthcare is a right,” as being both fascist and concerned citizens. On 24th March 1987, ACT UP stages its first protest on Wall Street. Activists stage a kiss-in protest at St Vincent’s Hospital, demanding sensitivity training for gay patients.
France then introduces activists such as Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, Bob Rafsky, Jim Eigo, David Barr, Gregg Bordowitz, Larry Kramer, Iris Long, Mark Harrington and many others to recount how they became part of a grassroots campaign to raise awareness, to learn about the disease, to fight it, and to challenge their representatives and government agency officials to address the issue and take appropriate steps to rectify bureaucratic problems. France mostly uses footage shot by activists, interspersing it with more recent interviews when appropriate.
The contribution of some figures is particularly noteworthy. Iris Long, a retired chemist, came out to explain the processes employed by the Federal Drugs Administration, by the drugs companies, and the like. Mark Harrington, a film archivist, draws on such knowledge to put together a glossary to explain different aspects of AIDS and the treatments then available. Peter Staley, a bond trader on Wall Street, quits his job to become fully involved in the campaign to “act up, fight back, fight AIDS”. Bob Rafsky, a father who came out at 40 in the midst of the crisis, challenges Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential election, putting the AIDS crisis firmly on the agenda. The activists, telling their stories from archive footage, become concerned with whether they will live to see a drug. Fighting the certainty of death and their brave struggle to overcome it provides a compelling emotional hook.
The suffering that its victims went through comes across in harrowing images of frail young men’s bodies and the treatment of lesions and Kaposi’s sarcoma. Appearances by Ray Nazzaro, an artist, as Jesus Christ in sequences outlining the protesters’ challenging of the Roman Catholic Church’s position, and later offering sound advice on sexual health, brings both humour and pathos.
The AIDS crisis and the efforts by the activists to address it properly provides an interesting insight into contemporary American society. The narratives it broaches include gay liberation; access to healthcare; government responsibility at federal, state and municipal levels; increasing trust in science and the reliability of the market to provide the correct drugs; the culture wars, involving the hardening of conservative positions, and a growing gulf between left and right. It’s complex terrain with much to cover, and France demonstrates considerable skill in putting human faces and stories on the devastating effects actions taken by powerful players can have within such debates.
How to Survive a Plague almost veers into treating the AIDS crisis as having ended before reminding us that four people continue to die from AIDS every minute and that 5,500 die daily because they cannot afford the cost of available treatments. Oscar-nominated as Best Feature Documentary, his film is a call to action.