How to Survive a Plague
Moving, Oscar-nominated documentary about the early days of AIDS campaign group ACT UP
Founded by playwright Larry Kramer and a group of fellow activists in March 1987, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) is a grassroots group dedicated to influencing US AIDS policy and research. David France’s documentary charts the group’s early years: lobbying the Reagan, Bush Sr and Clinton administrations for increased funding to AIDS research; putting pressure on the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health to make AIDS medication more readily and cheaply available; and achieving a breakthrough in the early 90s, when the first effective medication was discovered.
Relying heavily on old video footage to begin with, the film documents the impassioned meetings among the group’s founders in late 80s New York; as time goes on, interviews with the surviving members are introduced. France occasionally strays close to manipulative territory, especially when a montage of interviewees breaking down in tears is used, but he pulls back sufficiently to allow archive footage to show some genuinely powerful material: the scattering of ashes on the White House lawn; a crowd of medical conference delegates standing in solidarity with the campaigners; an exhausted but infuriated Kramer crying out, ‘Plague! We are in the middle of a plague!’, silencing a room full of bickering factions that would herald the fragmentation of ACT UP.
As a primer on AIDS activism, How to Survive a Plague is an indispensable and moving piece of filmmaking. It also provides an interesting window on the shift in the relationship between protesters and their targets: while ACT UP managed to convert medical and political institutions to their way of thought, contemporary efforts such as Occupy have struggled to have the same impact.
Screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.