In his filmmaking debut, journalist David France, who wrote the first story about ACT UP for this publication, assembles a thoroughly reported chronicle of that direct-action advocacy group’s most vital era, from its founding in 1987 (six years into the AIDS epidemic) through 1995. Expertly compiled from hundreds of hours of archival footage—depicting fractious meetings, infamous demonstrations like 1989’s die-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and hospital visits with the gravely ill—France’s documentary captures the fury and unflagging commitment of ACT UP to target those in power who did nothing to stop the disease. Present-day interviews with members who in 1987 doubted they’d live to see their 30th birthday deepen the film’s impact as an essential document of queer—and New York City—history.
Following through on its instructional-manual-like title, France’s film highlights the unlikely assortment of individuals who comprised ACT UP—those who “wrote” the primer. Many were white gay men in their twenties, like Peter Staley, a once-closeted, HIV-positive bond trader who joined the activist group after picking up a flyer at its first demonstration, in March 1987 on Wall Street. But the coalition’s ranks also included Garance Franke-Ruta, a high school dropout (she is now a senior editor at The Atlantic), and Iris Long, a retired chemist and housewife from Queens partial to floral shirts. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power did so by marshaling the energy and expertise of people who were sick, had lost someone to the disease, and/or were outraged by politicians’ indifference and homophobia. (Jowls flapping, Jesse Helms is shown fulminating on C-SPAN about “the revolting behavior” that has led to the proliferation of AIDS). “They all had to become scientists in a way,” playwright Jim Eigo, in a present-day sit-down, says of his former comrades in ACT UP; their knowledge equaled and sometimes surpassed that of the immunologists and medical researchers they tangled with during the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton eras.
Dispensing with voiceover narration, How to Survive a Plague is instead a compilation of first-person remembrances, a time-toggling polyphony emphasizing both individual struggles against illness and collective action—the we of me. Like Jim Hubbard’s similarly impassioned documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, which played briefly at the Quad in July, France’s film gains in poignancy as its subjects reflect back not only on the group’s insurrections at the FDA, the NIH, the White House, and pharmaceutical-company headquarters, but also on their much-younger selves. Yet France is always careful not to confuse “tribute” with “nostalgia.” Ann Northrup recalls the less-harmonious moments in ACT UP’s history, “the inevitable splits in priorities” and “the charges of sabotages and threats.” Amplifying this, France includes electrifying footage of Larry Kramer, the catalyst behind the activist group, erupting during a meeting after a prolonged exchange between unseen, nasty cavilers: “Plague! We’re in the middle of a fucking plague, and you behave like this! ACT UP has been taken over by a lunatic fringe!”
Two decades after this incident, Kramer, in his signature overalls, makes another kind of stirring claim: “Every single [treatment] drug that’s out there is because of ACT UP, I am convinced. It is the proudest achievement that the gay population of this world can ever claim.” Of course, the disease still rages around the globe; 2 million people die every year from AIDS because they can’t afford the drugs, a closing intertitle reminds us. But millions of lives have been saved—and extended—as the result of a tireless cadre of advocates who, as Eigo states, “put their bodies on the line.”
Although those bodies are undeniably the focus of this vivid history, How to Survive a Plague is also obliquely a chronicle of New York City, past, present, and future. (The emphasis on psychogeography links France’s film to David Weissman’s We Were Here, a simple, sobering oral history of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco released last year.) Stroll on the south side of West 13th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, and you’ll pass the still-indispensable LGBT Center, where direct actions were planned and egos clashed. (ACT UP still meets there every Monday night.) But gone forever is St. Vincent’s Hospital, which ministered to so many at the height of the AIDS epidemic and was the site of an ACT UP kiss-in in 1987. Closed in 2010, the hospital will soon be remade into luxury housing—outrageous news tempered by the realization that the first ACT UP demo that Peter Staley walked past in 1987 is just a few blocks away from Zuccotti Park.