Exposing the front lines of the AIDS epidemic on the streets of New York, David France’s How To Survive A Plague is a moving testament to people power.
Apocalypse Now by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Like every good war film, How To Survive A Plague begins with a huddle in the trenches the night before battle firing up the troops before the next day’s assault. In this case, it’s a sortie on City Hall by Act Up, a group of AIDS activists demonstrating against Mayor Edward Koch, desperate to turn the tide on an epidemic that had already killed half a million people, with no medicines to fight back with and turned away from hospitals. And as the Twin Towers linger onscreen, we’re thrown back to a previous war that took place on the streets of New York city. And it’s trench warfare, as friends and brothers in arms are killed. A war filmed from start to finish on video, with chilling portraits of the dying in overfilled hospital wards, their immune system shot to pieces succumbing to pneumonia, or covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma skin lesions. And while it’s testament to those who gave their lives in the fight, David France’s militant documentary isn’t a testimony to the dying, like Weber and Weissman’s We Were Here, but rather to the foot soldiers that fought.
There are many unknown soldiers in this long-forgotten war, but through its battering ram of home video, archive footage, death-bed testimonies and talking heads, How To Survive A Plague pays tribute to Peter Staley, Iris Long, Mark Harrington, Bob Rafsky, Jim Eigo and Larry Kramer – names that have faded undeservedly into obscurity. The oblivion of peacetime. But in the late Eighties and early Nineties they were on the frontline – the retired scientist and housewife Iris Long explaining the science and processes with the government and health bodies, Peter Staley – a bond trader on Wall Street turned full-time activist and Mark Harrington – a Harvard graduate and leading brain of Act Up’s ‘science club’ Treatment and Data Activity. With virtually everyone doing (useless) medical trials, the activists staged acts of civil disobedience, but also became scientists, like all AIDS sufferers, to understand the disease and try to survive. And their battles were picked with the health industry, all the way up to Capitol Hill, demanding when the US administration finally approved the first AIDS drug AZT in 1987, and the most expensive drug in history at $10,000 a year, for cheaper drugs and that pharmaceuticals don’t profit from their lives.
They were fighting complacency and institutionalised homophobia, Bush Snr dragging his feet on finding a cure for a disease he considered a question of behaviour, and the Catholic Church stubbornly continuing to advocate celibacy to its congregation. Both patients and pariahs – accused of proliferating AIDS, the men and women of Act Up fight back, their words flying to heaven “You’re killing us!”, their mothers and grandmothers risking arrest demonstrating outside the FDA for quicker efficacy trials. There are many powerful moments in this war on ignorance and incompetence, such as Bob Rafsky’s pained accusation to a scientist in a Japanese pharmaceutical company, “You are my murderer!” Or at the AIDS memorial quilt project, the gay community’s equivalent of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, as men and women fling the ashes of their loved ones onto the White House lawn. But perhaps the most poignant comes during some internal squabbling at an Act Up meeting cut through by Larry Kramer’s harrowing cry, “Plague! We’re in the middle of a f***ing plague and you behave like this!”
The death toll keeps rising, but there are breakthroughs – from what the hell drugs and black market pills to assuring earlier releases from the FDA of the antiretroviral DDI and drugs to combat blindness. They coordinate the battle-plan to combat the epidemic (failed by both those in government and the health body) and ensure transparency and that their voice is heard in the prioritisation of drug trials. But when science hits a brick wall, and by 1991 with 2.5 million dead from the disease, as they start to watch each other die the anger turns inwards and Act Up begins to split, with TAG (Treatment Action Group) forming as a splinter organisation to carry on the healthcare fight. It’s only finally in 1996 that protease inhibitors are combined into the triple combination therapy that the battle is finally won. But not yet all across the globe, as Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary Fire In The Blood handily continues.
Like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, there’s a bloodcurdling brutalness to How To Survive A Plague, only less existential and more visceral. It may have a peppy (and occasionally heavy-handed) score, including gay New Yorker Arthur Russell who posthumously provided the soundtrack to Ira Sachs’ Keep The Lights On but its anger and emotion doesn’t detract from the harrowing screams of a demimonde convinced they are staring death in the face. Like its closing song warning there’s no end in sight, How To Survive A Plague is as subtle as a sledgehammer, and joyfully and militantly so. There’s perhaps a rather dubious conceit, holding back the modern testimonies of the survivors until the very end, reducing their survival to a dramatic turn, but it does lend a very human face to the AIDS epidemic. And it’s a testament to all those who fought, took control and took care of each other. For all of us.
How To Survive A Plague is released on 8th November 2013 in the UK