‘Survive a Plague’ filmmaker hopes to inspire new generation of AIDS activism

By David Ferguson
Tuesday, September 4, 2012 16:32 EDT
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How to Survive a Plague
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Filmmaker David France’s film “How to Survive a Plague” tells the story of the protest group, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), and its offshoot, the Treatment Action Group (TAG). France, a longtime print journalist and author, hopes that the film presents an accurate history of ACT UP’s struggle and ultimate success, as well as providing inspiration to a new generation of young AIDS activists.

“I had always felt there was an historical error,” France said in a question and answer session after a showing of “Plague” on Tuesday morning at the Democratic National Convention in Chartlotte, North Carolina. “The books and the plays and the films about AIDS all captured the horror of the arrival of the new epidemic, kind of what HIV did to the communities affected by it in this country, and to individuals. And I knew that the other part of that story was what individuals did to HIV.”

“How to Survive a Plague” combines documentary footage from more than 30 different sources, people and media figures who were on the ground at ACT UP’s historic protests, filming. France had originally intended to write a book, but said in an interview with Raw Story, “The more research I did, the more I realized that in order to really tell the story, I would have to go back to the old video footage that I knew was being shot at the time.”

The video footage he found tells the story of how ACT UP and TAG changed the nature of political protests in the U.S., as well as how they pressured the government to change FDA testing guidelines and thereby created an accelerated pipeline to the market for medicines to treat AIDS and HIV.

The film began in 1987, the sixth year of the AIDS epidemic. Viewers were introduced to activists like Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, Spencer Cox and others, who, as their friends began to sicken and die around them, found themselves frustrated and confounded by the government’s inaction and inept handling of the emerging pandemic.

Staging large, high visibility protests, ACT UP seized national headlines as they stormed the offices of the NIH, St. Mark’s Cathedral in New York City and wrapped Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC)’s house in a giant pink condom.

TAG formed as a separate wing of ACT UP dedicated to researching treatment regimens and drug trials for AIDS victims. When the epidemic began, there were simply no drugs to treat it. Faced with the glacial pace of government action, TAG researched drugs and imported them from abroad, and meanwhile forced their way into the highly secret world of pharmaceutical testing and approval.

Over the course of nine years, ACT UP was roiled by internal tensions. Rank and file members became doubtful and suspicious of TAG, accusing them of “elitism” and being too close to the drug makers they were pressuring.

Nonetheless, the protests began to work. Drug trials became shorter and more humane. People who were previously highly unwelcome outsiders to the pharmaceutical industry became their own best advocates on the inside.

The film, which could easily have slipped into a maudlin retelling of one of the most frightening and devastating chapters in the history of LGBT people in the U.S. and the world, is actually a story of triumph. The courageous activists in the story, even as their bodies failed them, some dying along the way, made history.

France hopes that the film will reach and inspire a new, younger audience. Many young LGBT people today have never seen AIDS up close. Advances in treatment, including multi-drug protease inhibitor cocktails, have lengthened the life spans of HIV-positive people, and reduced the number of people who die of the opportunistic infections engendered by the total immunological collapse caused by AIDS.

Raw Story asked France how he feels that organization like ACT UP and TAG compare to a modern protest group, the Occupy movement.

He replied that while he admires the energy and intent of the Occupy protests, the movement has suffered from a lack of media savvy and an inability to craft and articulate a clear message or a specific set of goals. TAG and ACT UP, he said, went to the government and drug companies with a list of detailed demands, requests for specific drugs and guidelines for trials.

“You’ve got to find a way to make the system respond,” said France, “to force people and allow people to do their jobs.” Occupy, he said, acknowledged that the system was broken, but offered no concrete agenda or plan to replace it, and as a result, he said, “unfortunately I tend to speak about Occupy in the past tense. I know they still meet, I know they still have some sense of cohesion, but what we lost was this promise of a movement.”

ACT UP took nine years to achieve its goals. Many of its members were gay men who had worked in media, PR, production, “selling Coke, selling Madonna.” As a result, the messages were carefully crafted, ideas were streamlined into sound-bites and the group, while appearing chaotic to outsiders, were able to carefully choreograph its protest actions and group arrests in such a way as to maximize their cultural impact.

As a result, he said, ACT UP was able to impact the culture on multiple fronts. ACT UP, he said, changed the scientific model for drug trials, as well as the protocols for identifying and studying new infectious diseases. Meanwhile, other protest groups began to crib from ACT UP’s protest playbook, and the ACT UP “look” — jeans, black and white t-shits, boots and black leather jackets — crept on to fashion runways.

The film comes out in theaters on September 21. The Student Global AIDS Campaign is planning to stage “teach-ins” at showings across the country.

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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