About three-fourths of the way in to “How to Survive a Plague,” director David France’s documentary on the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, we see footage of two leaders of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) thinking about whether they will to see a cure to the disease. Bob Rafsky answers first, without hesitation: “No. I don’t.” Peter Staley pauses for a long time. Then, “No … no.”
The Academy Award-nominated documentary, shown this past Wednesday at the Whitney Humanities Center, is a tour de force that combines these kinds of moments, conveying an urgency foreign to any domestic movement today. Activists weren’t just campaigning for better healthcare or for more investment in AIDS research. They were screaming for their lives. And those moments of raw, emotional protest are, coupled with the images of Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and sunken cheekbones, how the film hits you.
The archived footage, 800 hours of which David France sifted through to create the 109 minute documentary, is grainy, shaky, real. Its chaotic feel is that of the movement itself, initially strong and united under ACT UP, but still desperately clamoring for the release of AIDS medications. There’s the first ACT UP protest in 1987; the FDA headquarters protest, police dragging away protesters as they scream for the release of dextrin sulfate; the protest within a New York cathedral, the infected lying down in the aisles; the sit-in at the U.S. headquarters of a Japanese drug company; the dumping of the deceased’s ashes on the White House lawn. It’s an exhaustive display of sign-holding, lying down and screaming moments. But it shows just how much the activists were willing to do, and how far they were willing to go to not suffer crippling, accelerated deaths.
If the above-mentioned scenes anger and galvanize you, then there are the more personal moments that make you cry. The film starts with faces and bodies. The New York City hospitals are overflowing with patients who, as ACT UP’s medical expert Iris Long says, were first being diagnosed in the emergency room. When AIDS-infected patients died in the hospital, she says, “they used to put them in black trashbags.” We see Rafsky, an ACT UP public relations executive who came out when he was forty and married, call a drug company executive who refuses to release potentially life-saving drugs “my murderer in your suit and tie.” We see Staley, an ACT UP member and founding director of Treatment Action Group, stare into the camera and say, “Like any war, you wonder why you came home.” And then, the moment from which the film gets it name: Larry Kramer ’57, the force behind ACT UP’s founding, can no longer stand the organization’s infighting. “PLAGUE!” he yells in the middle of a meeting. “We’re in the middle of a fucking plague, and you behave like this. Until we get our acts together, we’re as good as dead.” It’s poignantly ironic, a statement made immediately before the worst years of the epidemic, in which patients start to show signs of resistance to AZT, and AIDS becomes the leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 25 and 44.
With “How to Survive a Plague,” you get a comprehensive history of the AIDS activist movement. But more importantly, you understand the reason behind its desperate urgency, and you feel some of the loss at its core.
At the end of the film, David France, sitting on a panel, noted that the archived footage and microfilm is beginning to deteriorate. And today’s young gay men don’t know the history of the movement that brought the AIDS epidemic to the forefront, Staley said at the panel, creating a “profound sense of abandonment within the gay community.” How do we keep the memory alive?, they all seemed to ask.
“How to Survive a Plague” is one of the best answers to that question. It’s not all that needs to be done, but it’s a breathtaking start.