‘How to Survive a Plague’: Courage Joins Conviction in the Fight to Tame HIV

New film about the gay community’s AIDS activism shows the power of acting up for change.

ACT UP activist Peter Staley is pulled away by police during a protest in How to Survive a Plague

Peter Staley, a founding member of the HIV/AIDS activist group ACT UP, engages in a peaceful protest in How to Survive a Plague. (Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Selects)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

David France never set out to be in movies. But look closely at France’s debut film, How to Survive a Plague, a feature documentary chronicling the early days of the AIDS crisis that opens in theaters this week, and you’ll see him in the background.

France appears, notepad in hand, as a journalist for The New York Times and Newsday. It was a role he had no initial desire to revisit.

“Of the team working on the film, my executive producer and I were the only people who had that experience [of] living through those years,” France tells TakePart. “So, for me, it was something I was worried about doing. It was a journey that I didn’t really want to make emotionally, but once we began on it, I saw the value in it.”

MORE: AIDS Activists Take to the Streets: Photo Essay

France’s decision to forge ahead with How to Survive a Plague has resulted in a valuable document that illustrates how a beleaguered minority solidified in a brave front to save untold lives imperiled by the dawn of the HIV virus.

The intimate knowledge France gained as an at-the-scene chronicler of the gay community’s activist efforts, through the formation of such organizations as ACT UP, uniquely positioned the journalist-turned-filmmaker to cull through hundreds of hours of footage shot from 1987 to the present day. He has created a decades-spanning look at how the people most affected by the HIV virus challenged public prejudice and government apathy to beat back the disease.

“The majority of people with HIV will never take a single anti-AIDS pill unless we do something about it.”

Composed almost entirely of archival video, How to Survive a Plague honors the moral imperative behind the sense of purpose and organization of AIDS activism. The AIDS warriors of the 1980s, with cohorts and brothers sickening and dying with every day that went by, first went on an offensive to raise awareness through protests and street theater. But knowledge of the epidemic decimating the gay community would not be enough to stop the deaths.

The saving grace, literally, of AIDS activism is that it refused to settle for visibility. Leaders of the movement became experts on pharmaceutical remedies. This expertise enabled them to push for expedited legislation and scientific breakthroughs. The resulting treatments have not eradicated HIV, but the infection has been largely destigmatized and the lives of people who have contracted the virus are prolonged and improved.

“What I wanted to tell was the story of agency,” says France. “All the stories we’ve enshrined about the early days of AIDS were all about what AIDS did to the community, what it did to culture, what [it] did to the cities of New York and San Francisco. I wanted to tell a story of what the community did to AIDS. It’s a story about individual innovation that was intended really just to save their own lives and in doing that, they transformed healthcare globally.”

How to Survive a Plague ends on a note of triumph, but France is quick to say the fight is far from over. A running tally of AIDS-related deaths is shown at various times in the film. The body count has slowed considerably since the development of combination therapy in 1996, but the cost of such medication has been prohibitive for many. According to the film, prohibitive pricing results in nearly two million deaths a year.

“The majority of people with HIV will never take a single anti-AIDS pill unless we do something about it,” says France. To remedy that neglect, the filmmaker has linked to organizations such as the Student Global AIDS Campaign and the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance on the film’s Web site and as partners in grassroots campaigns to direct audiences toward finding a cure once and for all.

“It’s just a matter of getting the political will and the money together to make it happen. That’s the next challenge. That’s the challenge that was made possible by the successes chronicled in How to Survive a Plague.”

What are some steps you can take to help lower AIDS-related deaths globally? Leave your solutions in COMMENTS.

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