Documentary ’How to Survive a Plague’ Celebrates ACT UP
The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power turns 25 this year, and gay journalist David France has directed a compelling documentary about the group and some of its major accomplishments called "How to Survive a Plague."
The film uses raw footage from assorted ACT UP protests in New York City and at the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health in the Washington, D.C., area giving viewers a refresher course in the group’s biggest and most attention-grabbing actions.
Vivid scenes from ACT UP’s raucous general meetings that were held at the first-floor meeting room in the gay community center in Manhattan reveal the heightened emotions of people with AIDS fighting for their lives, savvy strategizing and political thinking that shook up the political, medical and media establishments.
As the street protests and weekly meetings unfold, director France zeroes in on the life and death of ACT UP member Bob Rafsky, a public relations executive who came out late in life after his marriage to a woman and the birth of their daughter. Years tick by and heartbreaking scenes of Rafsky celebrating his daughter’s birthdays illustrate how much he was loved by his family, as HIV slowly damages his physical appearance and depletes his immune system.
When he speaks at meetings or protests, Rafsky powerfully embodies the fury of the group over how our lives and health issues were of no concern to the politicians, pharmaceutical executives and reporters.
The empowerment and enlightenment the group’s members gave to themselves and each other is seriously undercut when France uses talking heads from the drug giant Merck, and federal officials Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH and Ellen Cooper, formerly of the FDA, in contemporary interviews.
All of the Big Pharma and government officials relay the fears and concerns they had when first targeted by ACT UP for the tortoise-like pace of drug development and approval, but after reading detailed reports and proposals from the group and meeting with some of the activists, the bureaucrats change their views and begin implementing many life-extending changes.
The do-it-yourself spirit that made ACT UP the force that it was flies out the window whenever the outside experts appear.
ACT UP members such as Bill Bahlman, Gregg Bordowitz, Jim Eigo, Garance Franke-Ruta, Iris Long and Peter Staley are given screen time to lay out how the group decided which drug companies or treatments to target, reminding viewers of just how terrible life was for people living with HIV prior to the development of protease inhibitors and AIDS cocktails.
The extremely controversial demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral over the Catholic archdiocese’s abusive and dangerous meddling in public health policies regarding AIDS and abortion concerns, receives its proper due and is the one section of the film where there is an excellent reason to laugh.
Before the activists go into the church and disrupt the religious service, we watch the late Ray Navarro, dressed as Jesus Christ and wearing a crown of thorns, pretend to be a reporter for the Fire and Brimstone Network, explain that church leaders will be held accountable for trying to force their beliefs on the public health system. He also stresses the importance of condoms to stop transmissions.
Some of the angriest scenes, no surprise, belong to the man who played a vital a role instigating ACT UP’s birth, none other than Larry Kramer. When he unleashes his temper as philosophical divisions are tearing at the group, it’s like a biblical prophet beseeching his people to stop the squabbling.
"How to Survive a Plague" is seriously flawed in not identifying the many people with AIDS and activists who are shown on-screen, and who were the bodies that showed up for the die-ins and kiss-ins that brought about radical medical and treatment changes in a relatively short period of time.
ACT UP and TAG
Much of France’s documentary stays focused on ACT UP, but the final third or so of it is a look at the breakaway nonprofit Treatment Action Group and how it embraced the suit-and-tie approach once derided by TAG leaders when they were part of ACT UP.
Mark Harrington, TAG’s co-founder and leader, comes across as a cold, arrogant and calculating prick. When he speaks about the lost lives and devastation of AIDS before the cocktails, his lack of empathy and feeling left this viewer thoroughly unmoved.
I must disclose that I appear in two scenes, both times without screen credit. During the madness of the St. Patrick’s demonstration, I am shown standing on a pew blowing a whistle and yelling at the top of my lungs, telling Archbishop John O’Connor to stop his deadly politics.
Years after that protest, at the start of the 1992 presidential primaries when ACT UP organized a massive street protest in Manchester, New Hampshire, I speak before a crowd of activists promising that when the fall election rolled around we would be in Washington to deliver a message that "AIDS won’t wait" to all candidates.
This documentary could have focused a lot less on TAG and its insider agenda, and instead looked closely at how no one in ACT UP was paid a salary, that everyone was pushed to become his own expert in whatever aspect of the AIDS epidemic concerned him the most, and how the dozens of chapters that sprung up around the country and abroad collaborated.
"How to Survive a Plague" was partially produced with funding from HBO, has some of the slick qualities associated with their documentaries, and is playing the film festival circuit before receiving a theatrical release later this year.
I hope viewers will watch it as well as the other new ACT UP documentary "United in Anger," from Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, and learn valuable lessons about grassroots organizing in the face of daunting challenges.
ACT UP! Fight back! Fight AIDS!