How to Survive a Plague (2012), a moving documentary by David France, tells the story of the political push for research and release of effective medication during the height of the AIDS crisis, a crisis that, despite its optimistic ending, the movie reminds us we are still in the middle of. The movie focuses on the hopeful and spirited beginnings of grassroots activism in the late ’80s, and follows the trials and tribulations, low times and splintering among the prominent groups up until the medical breakthrough when, in 1996, a cocktail of several drugs became the effective treatment that was demanded. The movie argues the release of this miracle cure would not have happened when it did if not for the actions of ACT UP, TAG and other groups the movie chronicles.
AIDS entered the public consciousness in 1981, and by 1987 had become such an epidemic that 300,000 people a year were dying, and groups organized to force city, state and federal governments to take notice and do something about it. Those affected wait for days for hospital beds, those who die are often placed in garbage bags, and many funeral homes refuse to take the bodies. Throughout the years, politicians such as New York mayor Ed Koch and President Ronald Reagan turn a blind eye, the Catholic Church, Senator Jesse Helms and President George H.W. Bush attribute the spread of the disease as an unfortunate side effect to immoral behavior, and presidential candidate Bill Clinton makes promises but doesn’t seem to understand why everyone is so upset about the whole thing.
A drug is released called AZT in 1987 that proves effective for about a month, before patients return to their previous condition, and victims aren’t pleased with the drug’s $10,000 a year price tag. Groups like ACT UP picket government buildings and drug companies to push cheap and capable medication into production and approval. The activists are made up mainly of gay and lesbian AIDS sufferers (PWAs, persons with AIDS) like the PR man Peter Staley and the writer Larry Kramer, but they are helped a great deal by scientists and doctors like the retired chemist Iris Long, who aren’t personally affected by the disease but believe enough in the Hippocratic Oath to know a massive public health failure when they see one. As the crisis rages on, beset by authority inaction and a mounting body count, the group splinters, as radical factions and conservative pockets can no longer see eye to eye, and the more aggressive TAG is formed.
The infighting produces the most interesting section of the movie, as despair after years of futility and the burials of countless loved ones (one activist encourages mourners to join him in dumping the ashes of friends on the White House lawn) creates a division between militant demanders who are never satisfied and those who are more measured (and effective) in their dealings with the opposition. Bob Rafsky is one of the activists for whom good enough isn’t good enough, and his admirable energy is often bootless because of the acerbic way he seeks change. He takes on Bill Clinton at a public forum and is made to look like a jerk, and he stages a sit-in at a laboratory and accuses a scientist he just met of being his murderer. This is extreme but we are sympathetic to him as we watch the sores on his skin and face become larger and more frequent as the years go on.
This is an effective documentary (not just about this particular issue but about grassroots activism in general), not the least of which is thanks to the miles of video taken at the time in question at rallies, basement meetings and conferences. Most docs of this type have to rely on talking heads speaking in the present with perhaps a few minutes of news archive footage to fill in their story (and both forms of media are present here), but How to Survive a Plague is told primarily through these amateur tapes taken by protesters, as if the movie had been in production for 25 years and just got around to being edited now. This gives us incredible access to the events as they are happening and adds poignancy to the present-day interviews, as many of them have AIDS themselves and are living proof of their own success. The most powerful moment in the movie has this found footage to thank, an unruly ACT UP meeting during the group’s most tumultuous time, in which Kramer bangs his fists in frustration and reminds the rabble what they all, regardless of personal opinion, are up against: “A plague!” he roars, “a fucking plague!”