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The Plague Years | The Nation

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The Plague Years

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A scene from David France's documentary How to Survive a Plague.  

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Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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This might sound like stereotyping, but I was around back then and I know: many of the people featured in David France’s moving and invigorating history of AIDS activism took an interest in old films. Thinking about the cinephiles among them, living and dead, and the commitment to human dignity that they continue to inspire, I began to wonder halfway through the movie if France should have borrowed a title from the 1940s and called his documentary Why We Fight.

The name certainly would have fit this record of relentless struggle, but on further reflection, I realized that any implied comparison between this film and Frank Capra’s wartime propaganda series would have been unjust. France’s work is more honest in its mode of addressing the audience than Capra’s, more heartfelt and nuanced. Besides, the title that France actually chose, How to Survive a Plague, does more to capture the sense of immediate risk that was common among the collective heroes of his documentary, the members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). The words also hint at the ultimate success of these people in the face of terrible odds, the uproarious do-it-yourself spirit they often displayed and, above all, their talent for developing the guidebooks they desperately needed—and that nobody else was going to write.

For those who have forgotten or didn’t know, How to Survive a Plague recalls that ACT UP produced more in the way of paper goods than posters, signboards and manifestoes. Its members also researched and wrote their own medical glossary on AIDS, the first national treatment-research agenda and eventually a reorganization plan for the National Institutes of Health, which under Senator Ted Kennedy’s auspices was incorporated into law. This was the self-help, policy-wonk aspect of ACT UP, which set a standard of effectiveness among recent activist movements that probably remains unsurpassed.

In its other main aspect, without which the treatment researchers arguably would have been left silent and invisible, ACT UP produced furiously inventive street theater and miles and miles of videotape. From the very start, in 1987, the fans of old movies in the group—as well as the publicists, artists and media industry professionals—showed up at every meeting and demonstration with camcorders in hand.

As a print journalist at the time, reporting on the epidemic from within, France had only a pen and a notepad. But he remembered all those camcorders—and to make this documentary (which is, remarkably, his first film), he set about locating and studying the scattered tapes. By his reckoning, he eventually assembled 700 hours of material, recorded by thirty different individuals and groups, in order to choose what to show, helped by the editors T. Woody Richman and Tyler Walk.

Thanks to their selection, you suddenly find yourself in a columned meeting hall at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Greenwich Village, under an old stamped-tin ceiling bristling with fans and exposed pipes. You scan the faces of the men and women crowded together—so many of them looking so young, and all the more heartbreaking for the ghostly contrasts in the images—and listen to an excited announcement that in just twelve hours, this group is going to Take! Over! City! Hall!

Anger dominates the ensuing montage of early demonstrations: on Wall Street, where the group protested the impossibly high cost of AZT, the only drug then approved for managing HIV infection; at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where a kiss-in (more aggressive than it sounds) jammed the rooms where people with AIDS were often denied treatment—and sometimes roughed up in the process; and at City Hall, where some 5,000 people railed against Mayor Ed Koch and his administration for practicing the silence that ACT UP famously equated with death. Outbursts were only to be expected. (If you don’t know or have since forgotten, France provides vintage examples of the public discourse of Senator Jesse Helms and Cardinal John O’Connor.) It’s striking, though, to see that even as the group’s emotive tactics channeled rage outward on the street, within the walls of its home base—at least in the early stage of ACT UP’s history—the keynote was not anger but a contagious exuberance.

Maybe it was the way high spirits spread throughout the group that enabled them to be generated at all—a possibility that comes to mind as France jumps from the meetings and street actions to introduce his key figures and the burdens they individually bore. Peter Staley, one of the people in the film who more or less represent ACT UP’s treatment and research side, recalls how he watched the early Wall Street demonstration from the sidelines as a deeply closeted bond trader—someone whose workplace mentor casually remarked that the marchers deserved to die for taking it up the ass. Bob Rafsky, prominent among the figures in the film who more or less represent the street-action side, had worked in public relations until he fell ill. He was the heckler to whom candidate Bill Clinton said, in 1992, “I feel your pain.” Videos of Rafsky’s family birthday parties become a poignant motif throughout the film, as his beautiful young daughter gets older and Rafsky himself grows weaker.

Larry Kramer, chief instigator of ACT UP, also makes a few appearances, notably in a scene where he erupts during the group’s later period of infighting. France has no hagiographic delusions and so documents the self-doubt that settled in once the AZT that the group fought so hard to secure didn’t pan out as the magic bullet many had first hoped; the mutual suspicion and hostility that took hold as tactics diverged and class divisions seemed to open; the anger that turned inward as the death rate accelerated with no hope in sight. Kramer could scold a fractious meeting into order with his Jewish mother act: “We are in a plague, and this is how you behave?” But high spirits did not return until a new class of drugs that ACT UP members had pushed for and helped shepherd through clinical trials—protease inhibitors—came into use and suddenly tamped down the virus.

One of the lessons that might be drawn is that when you think you’re already doomed, there’s no point in giving up. In a 60 Minutes interview from 1992 that France cuts into the film, Ed Bradley asked Peter Staley and others, “Do you expect to live to see a cure?” One after another, the answer is no. But at the end of the film, in one of France’s most stirring sequences, you see the middle-aged faces of Staley and a half-dozen fellow activists as they appear today, having made good on the title.

Like the very best documentaries about political movements, How to Survive a Plague makes you feel humble and, at the same time, extraordinarily proud.

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