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Film review: How To Survive A Plague is essential viewing for political activists

David France, 110min (NC)
  • @IndyVoices

David France's rousing and inspirational documentary should be required viewing for political activists everywhere. The film shows how, during the early days of the Aids epidemic, gay and lesbian activists came together to demand that politicians and pharmaceutical companies intervene to develop drugs that could arrest the disease.

At the time, the mainstream media was roundly ignoring the crisis, anti-gay violence was on the rise and right-wing Republicans like Jesse Helms were using biblical language to condemn Aids victims. There were no drugs to treat the disease, which was nearly 100 per cent fatal.

From a standing start, the activists from ACT UP (the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) taught themselves as much about the science of Aids as the doctors knew. They used PR, ingeniously, resorted to civil disobedience when they needed to and gradually forced change.

Given the huge amounts of death and suffering during the early years of their campaigning, the tone of the film can hardly be celebratory. Nonetheless, the activists utterly transformed the terms of the public debate about Aids. They refused to accept their pre-defined role as victims. "It's like living in a war. Friends all around me are dropping dead," Peter Staley, one of the most prominent activists, states early on in the documentary.

Director France makes heavy use of archive material. This includes home-movie footage as well as material from early ACT UP meetings. Many of the activists featured in the footage were eventually to die of Aids-related illnesses, among them Bob Rafsky, a PR exec with a young daughter he doted on. Rafsky was a formidable orator, famous for confronting Bill Clinton during his Presidential campaign. Also featured prominently both in archive material and in a more recent interview is writer Larry Kramer, a key figure in the movement.

France does gloss over the feuding and internal divisions among the groups of activists who, early on at least, felt they were clutching at straws. ACT UP sometimes used intimidating tactics. The group's rhetoric could be as aggressive as that of its opponents. Some of the drugs championed in the early years turned out to be useless. Even so, the activists were able both to shift public attitudes and ultimately to stem the epidemic.