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