“It’s a quirky, but not inconsequential, fact about HIV that the virus made its hideous debut in medical journals just a few months before the first camcorders hit the stores,” director David France points out in the press notes for How to Survive a Plague, an impressive new documentary about activism during the rise of HIV/AIDS. The birth of a particular kind of technology alongside the incubation of a global pandemic means that AIDS became the first medical disaster to have its entire progress documented on video. Cobbled together from 700 hours of found tape from 30 separate shooters, Plague succinctly establishes the origin and rise of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an early advocacy group for victims of a barely discussed and largely ignored deadly infection. Founded in 1987, six years into the crisis, ACT UP became a vocal and effective group, comprised mainly of those afflicted with AIDS. The film follows the the groups progress from its early protest actions in Greenwich Village through to times of internal frustration and discord in 1993; each new year comes with its own title card and a tally of the number of AIDS deaths to date.
The film eventually settles on several of ACT UP’s most outspoken and effective organizers and on their work, from emphasizing treatment knowledge and research within the community to agitating in the lobbies and parking lots of pharmaceutical companies and the National Institutes of Health. As the epidemic continued to grow, ACT UP’s organizational talent blossomed, a growth necessitated by what was perceived as a lackadaisical government approach to testing and approving new AIDS medications. As the film makes clear, protesters were beyond motivated by the urgency of their situation: if the disease offered only certain death, the dangers of unproven or ineffective treatment were hardly worth considering. The group’s actions grow from public demonstrations to accosting Bill Clinton during his first campaign for president. At one point, a dead activist is carried — open casket — to George Bush’s campaign offices in New York.
France does an excellent job of pacing what could easily have become a repetitive, depressing film. Bickering, infighting, and disagreement start to consume ACT UP in the early 90s, particularly as early, hard-won treatments are discovered to be not only ineffective but harmful. Focus begins to shift, and meetings frequently become shouting matches. In perhaps the film’s most powerful moment, playwright and de facto community elder Larry Kramer silences a disrupted meeting: “Plague — we are in the middle of a fucking plague! … Unless we get our acts together we are as good as dead.” Kramer delivers these lines with a gravity that eludes some of the movement’s younger members, who, barely old enough to vote, can occasionally come off as merely along for the ride. France expertly traces the development of younger activists like Mark Harrington, who grows from wanting to know how he looks smoking a cigarette in a promotional video in 1988 to starting the Treatment Action Group in 1992 and ultimately receiving a MacArthur Fellowship for his activism and outreach in 1997. Video interviews conducted for the film with surviving members of the ACT UP community demonstrate how growing up as activists shaped these figures. The interviews also offer French a way to shape the chronology of his fragmented footage.
Plague suffers only from a tendency of its subjects to pat themselves on the back, both at the time of their protests and contemporarily. Several are honest in acknowledging that the success of the AIDS movement came only from a lucky break, with the discovery of the three drug retroviral cocktail that continues to keep HIV at bay. The self-aggrandizing is earned in part, however, as doctors and administrators confess in interviews to being motivated and emboldened by the work of activists committed to accumulating knowledge about their conditions. During the early years of the epidemic, Peter Staley, one of the movement’s most outspoken and charismatic activists, insists that he believes he will not survive to see a workable treatment. When French reveals Staley now, it’s an effective moment; it’s overtly manipulated, particularly as France saves the crestfallen warble of AIDS casualty Arthur Russell and his cello for this, the film’s closing act. But as Staley’s voice breaks as he describes the movement as akin to war, with those left standing suddenly alone with the guilt that persists in survivors, it’s impossible not to see the movement as victorious in a way that has nothing to do with medicine.