I was a high-school freshman in 1981 when AIDS, then known as GRID (Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease), began ravaging first our community and then the world. It was terrifying to learn that sex — homosexual or otherwise — had suddenly become toxic, and safe-sex education soon became the norm. While tremendous advances in both prevention and treatment have been made in the last 30 years, new HIV infections and deaths continue.
Journalist and author-turned-filmmaker David France’s How to Survive a Plague (opening today in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago) methodically reconstructs the critical period in the fight against AIDS from 1987 to 1995. By 1987, half a million people around the world had died. Just four years later, the number of deaths had quadrupled. As survivor Peter Staley states in the film via vintage footage from the time: “It’s like living in a war; friends are dropping dead all around you.” HIV-infection was nearly 100% fatal, with only the drug AZT to buy some of the infected time at the then-unheard of cost of $10,000 per year. Sitting US president Ronald Reagan had yet to even mention the pandemic.
Angered by this woefully lacking response on the part of American leaders and drug companies, a group of infected New Yorkers and their supporters formed the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which would quickly become known as ACT UP. ACT UP staged a series of massive and often disruptive protests, the most notorious of which involved an invasion of St. Patrick Cathedral in response to then-Cardinal John O’Connor’s condemnation of prophylactics as a means of preventing HIV transmission (Ray Navarro, a late actor-activist dressed as Jesus in the film, amusingly dubbed the hierarch “Cardinal O’Condom”). Inspired by playwright Larry Kramer, who was the first to publicly pronounce AIDS “a plague,” ACT UP’s members were able to pressure the government and the FDA into a more rapid and effective response. Their ultimate success was the introduction of the first protease inhibitor in 1995, the “miracle drug” to which many of those still living with HIV/AIDS owe their longevity.
How to Survive a Plague was beaten to the screen earlier this year by Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. Both films use much of the same archival footage, interview subjects and statistics. Though its content will be familiar to those who saw the earlier film, How to Survive a Plague emerges as the better documentary if only due to its slightly more comprehensive perspective. Whereas United in Anger essentially ends with the 1992 schism within ACT UP when several of its longtime leaders left to form the Treatment Action Group (TAG), How to Survive goes on to highlight the pivotal protease inhibitor era. Final, current interviews with Staley and several other longtime survivors serve as a powerful coda.
The global AIDS death toll stands today at more than 30 million and HIV infection rates have remained fairly static in recent years. Obviously, the plague is not over. France’s fine documentary succeeds at showing both how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.
Reverend’s Rating: B+