By Don Simpson | March 8, 2012
Director: David France
Via a grassroots campaign to take on the indifference of the U.S. government and medical researchers towards the AIDS epidemic, activists were able to change people’s perception of AIDS from homophobic (“they asked for it”) to humanistic (“look at all of the human beings who are dying”). Director David France focuses on one such activist group — Act-Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which emerged from New York’s gay community in 1987 (the same year that President Reagan first spoke of AIDS by name). The death toll associated with the AIDS epidemic was skyrocketing out of control; no national prevention or care policy was in place; no medications existed to combat the virus. Act-Up realized they had to do something — and fast! They recruited professionals to help with their marketing, advertising and public relations campaigns; and, within their group, they began to study medical research, government policies and the pharmaceutical industry.
Confounded by the utter disorganization within government and private research facilities — not to mention their nonexistent progress — Act-Up focused their efforts on making AIDS research more efficient and productive. They started by applying public pressure; eventually, they began to get invited to corporate and academic meetings regarding AIDS research, thus commencing an unprecedented dialogue between patient advocates and research planners. By 1996, new drugs were successfully reducing the death count associated with AIDS. The situation has only improved since then…
France provides a concise overview of this heroic saga with a strong narrative arc and tons of naturally ingrained conflict. (Oh, and there is even a happy ending!) Via a rich tapestry of archival videotape (narrated by those involved), How To Survive a Plague follows Act-Up as a whole but focuses on a few integral members.
Twenty five years after their inception, Act-Up’s chant of “healthcare is a right” continues to echo throughout the streets of the United States, with the ongoing debate over “Obamacare” and national health care. Even though today’s debate is not about one specific disease or epidemic, the opposition to affordable and accessible health care has not changed. It is very frustrating to look at things this way; but, on the bright side, How To Survive a Plague reveals that activism does work. Activists are often perceived as nuisances, and activism is often assumed to be pointless; but How To Survive a Plague provides us with one very concrete example of how activism can work.