How To Survive A Plague
They told me, Heraclitus; they told me you were dead.
They brought me bitter news to hear, and bitter tears to shed.
I wept when I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky.
—“Heraclitus,” Callimachus (fl. ca. 280-45 BC)
“Just a few years ago, talking about ending the AIDS epidemic in the near term seemed impossible, but science, political support, and community responses are starting to deliver clear and tangible results,” UNAIDS executive director Michel Sibidé wrote last year.
—“Apocalypse Not” (2012), Matt Ridley
In 2004 Joseph Lovett chronicled male Gay Sex in the 70s, that post-Stonewall decade of pride, openness and abandon that would collapse with the advent of AIDS, leaving thousands dead and the rest scared. Of fiction and non-fiction HIV/AIDS accounts since, HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE is among the best, and not merely because it also includes, if to a lesser extent, repercussions among lesbians.
To this his first film, shown earlier in the MoMA-Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films, director, co-writer and –producer David France brings impeccable credentials. As a gay-press and then mainstream journalist who had come in on the ground floor, he was already writing about the epidemic even before it acquired its present name and was informally GRID (Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease) and ten years before losing his own partner to it.
Someone voiced “a single quibble” that viewers might be left with the impression that the scourge is defeated, whereas cases and deaths continue to mount worldwide due to lack of education and access to treatment. While the scope is extensively lower Manhattan, with forays into Washington, Bethesda, San Francisco and Montreal, recurrent digital counters do tick off global deaths and end titles indicate that the disease is far from universally on the retreat.
The tight hundred-nine minutes has been boiled down from seven-hundred until-now-unseen hours shot by thirty-two camcorder-journalists or amateurs, a half-dozen of whose AIDS-related death dates figure in credits.
There are fewer scenes than one might expect of telltale Kaposi’s sarcoma vascular skin tumors, wasted bodies with haunted eyes, hospitalized dying and even Mark Fisher’s now-peaceful face in his open coffin carried from Judson Memorial Church to Republican headquarters. This is not for mere shock value but to display the countenance of the heretofore invincible enemy, as the already infected speak of their own early deaths as foregone conclusions and pathetic artist Ray Navarro whispers of “hope. Life is worth living. Isn’t it?”
Miraculously, the heart of HSP is hope. Bringing the audience smack into the energized immediacy of the grassroots movement, the film begins with a pre-demonstration meeting of ACT UP. Formed in 1987 to the accompaniment of pink triangles and black “SILENCE=DEATH flags,” the at-first Greenwich Village activist organization coalesced around getting the federal government to allocate greater monies to research at a time when, six years after its appearance, President Reagan had yet to mention the plague he would later brand “Public Enemy No. 1” but without requesting additional subsidies.
The group petitioned, and was soon to picket, agencies such as the FDA, NIH and CDC to speed up research and testing and get pharmaceutical companies to lower unconscionable drug costs. Contrary to popular perception, giant Merck comes across as ready and willing to cooperate—and, with brief effective graphics, their explication of the virus and means to thwart it, is clear.
Through the media, national and international conferences—Peter Staley is electrifying addressing one in 1990 San Francisco—physical confrontations/occupations (St. Patrick’s Cathedral), a “Kiss-In” protesting cavalier and/or violent treatment of HIV patients and gays in general (St. Vincent’s Hospital), and sprinkling cremated remains on the White House lawn, activists sought to inform a previously hostile or at best indifferent public.
Targeting naysayers, bigots, moralists and blinkered conservatives like Senator Jesse Helms and the first President Bush, and heckling candidate Bill Clinton—prompting his celebrated “I feel your pain” response—the group fought for their lives. Members schooled themselves in the retroviral disease, in pharmacology, in government and legal impediments and ramifications, to become acknowledged experts.
Under such tension, all was of course not smooth. TAG (Treatment Action Group) split off over goals and personalities. Rebuked into uneasy coexistence, the organizations forged ahead, and seventeen years ago the first Protease Inhibitor was given official go-ahead, to be followed by others. (Post-infection life expectancy has since risen from one-and-a-half years to forty-five.)
The battle joined though not completely—or ever—won, participants in the film no longer bear the outward signs of their illness but shed tears over inward scars, survivor’s guilt, and recollections of comrades-in-arms perished along the way. From a time just before instantaneous mass dissemination of news, they are at once survivors and victims, victors and losers. And heroes.