Opening in select theaters this weekend, How to Survive a Plague is an unflinching and powerfully moving look at how the activists behind groups like ACT UP forced the medical establishment into action following its tragically stunted response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. The film made a big impact at its Sundance Premiere earlier this year, and has already had a successful run on the festival circuit. Now director David France talks to GLAAD about the astonishing bravery of the people who formed these groups and how the modern day media is largely ignoring what is still a global medical crisis.
And for New York residents who'd like an even earlier peak as this fantastic film, be sure to enter our Twitter contest for a pair of tickets to the film's premiere and afterparty on Wednesday September 18th!
What made you want to create a documentary about ACT-UP and the early days of the AIDS movement?
A number of years ago, while I was working on a piece for New York magazine about the dark chapter of AIDS in America before the advent of effective therapies in 1996, one of the people I interviewed told me, "A lot of good came out of the AIDS epidemic." At first this struck me as wildly inappropriate. I had painful memories of all the bad things from back then, all the death and anger and political disregard. All the loss. But of course he was right. AIDS and AIDS activism revolutionized every aspect of health care and gave us the patient-centered system we have today. Through AIDS, gay people gained a pivotal role in civic life for the first time ever. AIDS rewrote the playbook at the NIH and the FDA, and gave voice to pharmaceutical scientists who saw their purpose as a moral one, not just an economic one. Somehow this brilliance and triumph -- almost thrilling, when you look at it with the benefit of hindsight -- had been forgotten.
What qualities do you think characterize the activists your film represents at this point in history?
My film tells a story of how a few disenfranchised individuals with no formal training, no political power, and initially at least no natural allies chose to do something enormous. In that way it's a quintessentially American story. Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, Jim Eigo, and Garance Franke-Ruta had something in common with Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony, some core faith in their own abilities that was not just remarkable, but history-changing. It's a kind of hubris. They were a bond trader, a film archivist, a playwright, and a teenage hat-maker, but they mastered the elements of science so thoroughly that they were able to turn the experts in the right direction -- as peers and collaborators. I often wonder what else they might have accomplished had history not thrust them on this path. But that's almost beside the point. At a time when so many others, myself included, were almost paralyzed by terror and grief, they mounted a campaign that helped save millions of lives.
How would you characterize ACT-UP and the movement’s relationship with the media during the period you’re depicting, and how do you think that compares to where we are today?
Someone once observed that ACT UP sold AIDS activism as though it were the hottest new dance club phenomenon. Surely they were the most media savvy grassroots movement we have ever seen. There was a conscious effort to package the movement for general consumption, using all the tools they could master from the worlds of advertising, marketing, promotion, and PR. It was fascinating to watch the group prepare for a demonstration. Nothing was left to chance. Catchy chants were written and practiced. Members of the media committee rehearsed the entire membership in digestible soundbites in case they had a chance to talk to reporters. The next-morning coverage was dissected and critiqued in order to strive for improvement. I don't think we've seen such skillful manipulation of the media before or since. Remember, this was a time before there were many gays working in mainstream media outlets, so the fact that they were able to transmit their specific messages through the media to the scientists, politicians, and community members they hoped to reach was really an achievement.
How would you rate the media’s current coverage of the worldwide HIV/AIDS epidemic, and where do you think it could improve?
Since 1996, unfortunately, the media has largely moved on to other things. AIDS coverage has been pretty abysmal. I've been stunned when showing this film at festivals by the widely held belief that the problem of AIDS has been solved, when the truth is that in most of the world, though we know how to survive this plague, people are dying in the same cruel and hideous ways as Americans were two decades ago. In fact, more people are dying of AIDS today than ever -- two million real people every year -- and yet we almost never hear or read about the plague.
Are there any lessons you hope audiences will take away from the film and the events it depicts?
Yes. I hope a new generation rediscovers the story of AIDS activism so that they know the legacy these individuals left behind, and the lessons they learned about the limitless capacity of the human spirit. It's absolutely true: A lot of good came out of the AIDS epidemic.
The film will start its run in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles on September 21 before expanding to other markets in the coming weeks. You can purchase your tickets for How to Survive a Plague here.