“How to Survive A Plague”

I’m not sure I can bear to watch this documentary in a public theatre — and I am one of the lucky ones, who didn’t lose dear friends or family members to the AIDS plague.

Here’s the film’s website, which is link-intensive & highly informative.

In the dark days of 1987, the country was six years into the AIDS epidemic, a crisis that was still largely being ignored both by government officials and health organizations — until the sudden emergence of the activist group ACT UP in Greenwich Village, largely made up of HIV-positive participants who refused to die without a fight. Emboldened by the power of rebellion, they took on the challenges that public officials had ignored, raising awareness of the disease through a series of dramatic protests. More remarkably, they became recognized experts in virology, biology, and pharmaceutical chemistry. Their efforts would see them seize the reins of federal policy from the FDA and NIH, force the AIDS conversation into the 1992 presidential election, and guide the way to the discovery of effective AIDS drugs that stopped an HIV diagnosis from being an automatic death sentence – and allowed them to live long lives.

From Wesley Morris’ review in the Boston Globe:

Sometimes when the gay activist and playwright Larry Kramer goes on a tear, when he really lays into somebody about being politically lazy or not wearing a condom, you can feel inadequate, like just getting up every day and breathing isn’t enough. You hear rage, and you actually have to stop and ask yourself: Did I fight for something today?…

Kramer is not the central figure of this astonishing movie. He’s been given his due many times. He’s more the presiding spirit, the patron saint of moral castigation. That moment and most of the rest of the film is courtesy of camcorder footage. The director David France and his crew have sculpted years of old broadcast-news stories and home videos into a narrative that is impressionistic in its scope but coherent in its feeling. It seems passionately remembered. This movie is alive — hot, really — with the political seething at the federal government’s failure to help combat the spread of AIDS with effective medical treatments…

We’re now far enough from that era that seeing it all again feels like a slap to the face in the same way that watching certain moments in the civil rights epic “Eyes on the Prize” chills your bones. This doesn’t have that series’ stately magnitude. It’s smaller and crasser, but it’s comparatively galvanic. The material has been shaped in an artful manner that devastates, rouses, and shames. When France cuts to some of the TAG men in the sparingly used studio interviews, you realize you’re not simply looking at activists, you’re beholding war heroes. And then the inadequacy sets in: What did I fight for today?

And here’s the Globe‘s story about the man who made the film:

… “The story I wanted to tell is really a story of triumph,” said France, in town last spring for a screening at the Independent Film Festival Boston. “I thought, keep your tears to yourself. We’ll weep on the DVD extras.”

Despite the overwhelming tragedy of the AIDS era — since recognition of the virus in the early 1980s, HIV has taken the lives of tens of millions — France, an investigative reporter and first-time film director, said he doesn’t feel as though he’s telling “an AIDS story. The story is about activism and how it can work, how soaringly successful it can be.”

His film recounts the lives of some ordinary men and women — among them Peter Staley, a former bond trader who became the national media’s face of the AIDS crisis; Bob Rafsky, a divorced father who worked in PR but longed to be a writer; and Garance Franke-Ruta, a high school dropout who went on to graduate from Harvard and become a respected journalist — whose courage and determination helped raise mainstream awareness about the AIDS virus and hastened FDA approval of the drugs that have slowed the spread of the disease….

19 replies
  1. 1
    gorram says:

    I’m also one of the lucky ones but just watching the trailer has me crying.

    “We need our government to save our lives.”

    That is what this election, what the 2008 election, what every major election has been about. That is what Occupy is about. That is what Pussy Riot is about. That is what was demanded in Tahrir Square.

    We need the government to be a force for positive social change or we are all dead. We are all AIDS victims, we are all displaced by rising sea levels, we are all abandoned to the vicissitudes of the “Free Market”, we are dead miners in South Africa, we are the Geechee pushed out by gentrification, and we are all dead.

    We need a referee or we are all dead.

  2. 2
    geg6 says:

    I will have to wait for it to come out on DVD or On Demand because I will cry uncontollably. A dear friend of mine died of AIDS back in those dark days before it was understood or even treatable. It was his and his family’s deep dark secret. None of them ever told us he had AIDS but it became clear through his quick physical decline and their fear of touching him or getting too close to him. Hell, they still don’t admit it or the fact that Buzz was gay. My ex and I would go to the guy’s brother’s place to party and, since we were all potheads, they would roll a separate joint just for him, while the rest of us would share one among us. Man, I don’t wanna relive that but I will, if I can do it in private. I’ll even roll one when I watch. I will get through it, in honor and memory of Buzz.

  3. 3
    Cambridge Chuck says:

    I saw the movie at Kendall Square on Sunday. I lived through the plague years in San Francisco, lost virtually every gay man I had loved, including my twin brother, his partner, all my best friends and their partners, two of my own partners, most of my cohort. So I write this as kind of a report from the front, with whatever limitations that denotes.

    The film is, indeed, incredibly moving: it captures the sheer terror, exhaustion, self-sacrifice and despair of the plague’s early years. And the director’s aim to tell a story about activism, actually the triumph of activism, is eloquently framed and feels, at moments, to be quite empowering. It also, unfortunately, veers more toward hagiography than history: the entire story of AIDS activism is told entirely through the lens of ACT-UP New York. Now their story is indeed one worth telling; and it has been and continues to be told and re-told (most recently at a symposium at Harvard that brought together some of the old activist-warriors including Garance Franke-Ruta and other leading figures from ACT-UP New York). Like all these previous narratives, the film (and the activists themselves) omit any even minor reference to the fact that they didn’t work in isolation: there were ACT-UP chapters in other cities across the US, other AIDS treatment advocates who also fought the good fight for more testing, more treatment options, faster FDA approvals, better clinical trials and (always) more funding. Project Inform and AIDS Treatment News (both in San Francisco) were incredibly potent forces in AIDS activism, but are unnoticed by the director. ACT-UP Boston contributed mightily to the fight. (ACT-UP San Francisco was a much more mixed story.) Filmmakers have to make choices, to corral a lot of material into a coherent narrative: but it seems to be now-standard practice to put ACT-UP New York in the starring (and actually solo) role in every one of these narratives.

    For me the tell was this scene: in one of their actions, people marched on the White House, culminating in an act of civil disobedience where 7 people threw the ashes of their dead loved one over the fence and onto the White House lawn. The film makes it look like there were a lot of ACT-UP New York folks doing that — but since my now-partner (and Boston activist) was one of the 7 who defied the police and scattered his lover’s ashes across that fence, I know differently. I also know that the story of his courage and dedication to activism — and the stories of so many like him outside of New York — have yet to be told.

  4. 4
    c u n d gulag says:

    Living in NYC back then, and working with and knowing many male and female homosexuals, and seeing what AIDS was doing to not only them but to everyone in the city, was what made me drop my ingrained Upstate NY HS and College jock homophobia.

    Up until then, I wasn’t virulently anti-gay, but, I didn’t see any problem with a gay joke, or to exclude them from my life as much as possible.

    Sometimes people aren’t born open-minded, but get there anyway despite the culture that sorrounded them when they’re growing up.

    Maybe it’s the suffering and tragedy all people go through, and the joy we can all share, but I’m living proof that people CAN learn.

  5. 5
    MaxxLange says:

    I’ve been reading “Skagboys”, Irvine Welsh’s prequel to “Trainspotting”. I learned that Edinburgh stopped its needle exchange program in the 1980’s, probably in an effort to combat the rising levels of heroin use that the novels document. A lot of these poor bastards didn’t even know that sharing IV needles was dangerous. So you can imagine the outcome. Yay war on drugs!

  6. 6
    raven says:

    @MaxxLange: And Trainspotting was a great advertisement for booze wasn’t it?

  7. 7
    TheMightyTrowel says:

    i was a child in the 80s and early 90s. AIDS activists protesting and the fall of the Berlin wall are my 2 most vivid childhood memories of the news.

  8. 8
    debbie says:

    A dear friend of mine died of AIDS back in those dark days before it was understood or even treatable. It was his and his family’s deep dark secret.

    As early as 1979, I lost more than a few acquaintances and coworkers. The worst part for me was the thought that they felt that they had to hide why they were dying and resort to “cover” stories like stomach cancer.

    Even more horrible were the “investors” who purchased AIDS victims’ life insurance policies and then bitched in the NYT that it was unfair that “those people” hadn’t died yet. Gordon Gekko had his predecessors.

  9. 9
    hep kitty says:

    How quickly we forget. I don’t know about anyone else, but even as a straight person, I was terrified.

  10. 10
    c u n d gulag says:

    @hep kitty:
    Oh, I remember very, very well.

    When I moved down to the city, NY was like a sexual candy store, straight or gay. If you wanted sex, you almost had to work to NOT get it.

    And then AIDS hit.

    Most of us didn’t worry about it at first because, well, we were told that the disease was only hitting the gay and Haitian communities. And those of us who weren’t gay or Haitian, kept right on schtupping like bunny rabbits.

    And then, AIDS crossed over into the hetero community!

    And unless you had a recent certificate in your pocket, where the Health Department certified you as being clean, you were pretty much out of luck – and even if you had one, the woman would be asking who you were with since it was issued.

    NY went from a sexual candy store to a Medieval Village, locked up and barricaded against the plague.

    But the plague was already within.

    Scary, scary times – full of rumours, mistruths, and falsehoods; impossible miracle cures and improbable means of avoidance.
    And Reagan and the government did nothing – until his buddy Rock Hudson dies of AIDS. Then, it became personal for Reagan, and the government started to look into things.

    Thank goodness ACT UP was formed, and successful, or else the goverments moves would have taken even longer – and that’s if they ever happened at all.

    And AIDS is living proof that when there’s enough of an outcry, when it finally responds, government CAN AND DOES make a difference.

  11. 11
    Hunter says:

    I was lucky, in a way — I made it out of the ’70s healthy — but lost most of my friends. I made new friends, and then lost them, including one or two who could have been much more than friends, if they had lived.

    I don’t know if I could bear to watch this movie — I’m afraid it would call up too many memories that I’ve spent too long putting to rest.

    But I have learned to fight for things that are important — and to understand what the important things are. We all owe ACT-Up, big time.

  12. 12
    hep kitty says:

    @c u n d gulag: Yes, I guess I mean the country as a whole seems to have forgotten. I remember when Magic Johnson came out with being HIV+ I totally freaked out! But here he is, healthy and fine. But of course, he could afford the best , most advanced treatment money could buy. Even so, at the time, I didn’t expect him to live, certainly not to 2012. The wonders of modern science. Rachel did a piece on ACT UP a while back. It was just a terrifying time for everyone. And yes, back in the day, I had gay friends! They were too afraid to be tested.

  13. 13
    hep kitty says:

    I sound like Stephen Colbert with the “I have a black friend” thing. “I had gay friends!”

    But then I got into a very conservative profesion and any gay ppl I may have known certainly kept things under wraps. (This was the 90’s)

    One atty died of AIDs several yrs ago, but that cause of death was attributed to cancer or something like that. Nobody was supposed to know he was gay. My ex told me and I was shocked.

  14. 14
    MaxxLange says:

    You mean the glassing scene?

  15. 15
    TaMara (BHF) says:

    4 members of my family had hemophilia, we lost everyone of them. It’s a devastating illness to die from. And of course, secrecy was an ugly necessity. I don’t think I can watch the film. I saw a documentary about the hemophilia population being decimated and that big pharma knew the blood supply was contaminated. I was angry for weeks after.

    And I was already pretty angry about the way the gay community was treated….

  16. 16
    Hypatia's Momma says:

    Your hypocrisy is nothing short of astounding.

  17. 17
    Hypatia's Momma says:

    @hep kitty:
    People without his money are still alive, so that’s not the only reason he’s survived for so long while still infected. There are fascinating reasons why some folks are better able to resist full-scale HIV assault, albeit with medical assistance.

    I’m in the group that had friends die off by the tens in the 80s but some of them have survived and are doing pretty damn well. Barring an absolute cure, they will always be infected but at least the virus is below titration levels.

  18. 18
    trollhattan says:

    In related news:

    SAN FRANCISCO — A Christian legal group has filed a lawsuit to overturn a first-of-its-kind California law that prohibits licensed mental health professionals from practicing therapies aimed at making gay and lesbian teenagers straight.
    The Sacramento Pacific Legal Institute challenged the law signed Saturday by Gov. Jerry Brown The lawsuit was filed late Monday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
    The institute filed the suit on behalf of a psychiatrist and a marriage and family therapist who is also a church pastor in San Diego. It also names as a plaintiff Aaron Bitzer, a Culver City man who says he has benefited from the “reparative” therapy.
    The lawsuit claims the law, which is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, violates First Amendment and equal protection rights.


  19. 19
    Robin says:

    I can’t wait to see the movie.I want to see if the movie portrays all of us meaning white,jewish surburben housewife that i am. How come we are never talked about in the case of aids.We come in all colors,ages,healthy,nonhealthy,good people,bad people ,religons,sexes,homosexual,heterosexuals,grandmas,grandpas,in every state and every country.Why is it a big secret even now.That the faces of aids is all of us.What about us??

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