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Faced with their own mortality an improbable group of young people, many of them HIV-positive young men, broke the mold as radical warriors taking on Washington and the medical establishment.
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE is the story of two coalitions—ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group)—whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition. Despite having no scientific training, these self-made activists infiltrated the pharmaceutical industry and helped identify promising new drugs, moving them from experimental trials to patients in record time. With unfettered access to a treasure trove of never-before-seen archival footage from the 1980s and ’90s, filmmaker David France puts the viewer smack in the middle of the controversial actions, the heated meetings, the heartbreaking failures, and the exultant breakthroughs of heroes in the making.
In How to Survive a Plague, David France illustrates the heroes and struggles at the dawn of AIDS
BY MARK WARREN
Published in the December 2012 issue
Dear Larry Kramer,
I owe you an apology.
I thought that I knew everything I needed to know about the AIDS epidemic. It struck just as I was entering adulthood, and I followed the politics of the disease through the 1980s as it became an unparalleled public-health catastrophe. I watched as Reagan did nothing, I read Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, I saw your play The Normal Heart, I watched as my big brother Craig (whom you met) got horribly sick and died. And I moved to New York just in time to be both admiring of and annoyed by the guerrilla street theater of your group ACT UP, which you founded to hector a feckless and hostile political class into doing something in the face of all that death.
Only troublemakers ever change the world, and by God, nobody else was raising the alarm. But you were just so goddamn angry all the time, insulting everyone indiscriminately, and I seriously doubted that blocking traffic, holding kiss-ins, and screaming “Murderer!” at meek doctors on their way to their sad government jobs would ever yield anything good.
Well, David France’s extraordinarily moving documentary, How to Survive a Plague (in theaters now), shows how much I didn’t know, and shame on me for that.
I now realize that all of the literature — the Shilts book, your play — stops in about 1987, and that nothing until now tells the story of how the human race finally got the better of AIDS. And so it is that this inspiring film tells what can only be described as a secret history of how the insufferable bastards of ACT UP fought the institutional torpor that was the prevailing response to everyone around you dying, and in the process changed the world and saved yourselves. Without you and your targeted rage, it is entirely possible that the virus would still be destroying everything in its path.
But it is not, and that is owed to you and a remarkably few other people who came together to dedicate what you believed would be the last few months of your lives to forcing the world and the medical community to pay attention to what until then was a politically weak and marginal segment of the population. You mastered the science of the disease and the treatment protocols better than the doctors themselves, you forced faster drug trials, and you did so in an atmosphere of utter panic and fear.
You and the nucleus of ACT UP — typified by Peter Staley (getting arrested in the picture above), who was a bond trader on Wall Street until he got too sick to work — are heroes who haven’t gotten proper recognition until now, with France’s singular and powerful film, which he made, he told me, “to memorialize dying people in the brilliance of their activism.”
I am just so glad you’re alive to see it, Larry.