So, last Sunday Steve and I had the privilege of watching the documentary How to Survive a Plague at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, presented by Queer Screen.
I say privilege, because this is both one of the best, and one of the most important, documentaries that I have ever seen. This blog post is my way of saying thank you to director David France for putting this documentary together, something which must have been an incredibly difficult thing to do, because of the subject matter involved, and because of the heavy responsibility of portraying the people and events involved honestly and respectfully.
How to Survive a Plague chronicles the activities of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and its off-shoot TAG (the Treatment Action Group), from the epicentre of the AIDS crisis, the gay male community in New York City in 1987, through to the introduction of protease inhibitors/triple combination therapy in the mid-1990s.
I must admit that I cried (well, more accurately, sobbed) at many points during this film, from the visceral sense of fear experienced by these men and unflinchingly projected through the screen, through to the wonderful moments of comradery as they fought for and often won small victories in their long (and ultimately, but much too late of course, victorius) war for fair treatment, and including the tragic loss, too soon, of crusaders like Ray Navarro and Bob Rafsky (the scene with his ex-wife and child in the church after his funeral is especially raw).
Many direct action protests are captured, including the October 11, 1992 political funeral in Washington DC (where activists scattered ashes of the fallen on the White House lawns), and then the funeral of Mark Lowe Fischer in New York just before the 1992 Presidential election, where they took the open casket and chanted pleas for the polical class to listen and do something, anything, right outside the Republican Campaign Headquarters there.
But it is two speeches which for me truly stood out. The first, the amazing speech by Peter Staley to the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco in 1990. That speech is just about perfect in terms of political oratory, conveying a message while also grabbing the audience and forcing them to take on as their own the opinions and priorities of the speaker. The second, more ‘impromptu’ speech, is heart-breaking because of the sense of disunity and despair it revealed – I dare anyone not to be jolted out of their seats when they see Larry Kramer yell ‘Plague!’ to a room full of activists, who are themselves depressed and divided about the scale and severity of the challenge confronting them.
Of course, the documentary ends on a relatively positive note, as we see many of the activists from the archival footage, alive and now doing other, very worthy things with their lives (like most audience members I am in awe of the capacity of people like that to have fought such a long campaign, and then to sign up for one or indeed several more eg Mark Harrington, Peter Staley).
But just because many people in the Western world, and some in the developing world, are doing well health-wise in the fourth decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, does not mean that we can’t do better, both in terms of reducing transmission, and increasing access to treatments (and ultimately, of course, to finding a cure).
And the fact that as a society we are now doing comparatively well on this issue is the exact reason why we should watch movies like this, to reflect on the battles fought that got us here, and to thank and pay tribute to the activists who gave so much to ensure that people who followed would have a better, and more hopeful, existence.