When ACTUP, or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, staged its first protests in New York in 1987, the disease was in its sixth year and most people who contracted HIV died, and died quickly.
Ten years and millions of worldwide deaths later, people with AIDS and HIV were able to procure drugs that prolonged life, sometimes dropping their viral loads to undetectable levels.
What happened in that agonizing decade is the subject of the powerful, messy and tremendously moving documentary “How to Survive a Plague.” The filmmakers use a rich trove of archival footage (31 videographers are credited) alongside contemporary interviews with key surviving players.
“Plague” grants substantial credit for the relatively fast AIDS-treatment turnaround to a cadre of impatient and defiant gay men in New York — some of them HIV-positive — who emerged as leaders in the early years of ACTUP. There’s the brilliant Mark Harrington, the boyish former bond trader Peter Staley, the often-furious writer Larry Kramer and the eloquent Bob Rafsky.
Their fervor to organize was fueled by anger over foot-dragging on research and drug development, and the knowledge that their days — and those of friends and lovers — were numbered. Unblinking scenes of cadaverous AIDS patients in their final hours underline the sense of urgency that gave ACTUP an accelerated growth curve.
In short order, the group began mounting large-scale die-ins, blockading the offices of drug companies and undergoing mass arrests for civil disobedience. The group employed Greenpeace-style tactics — sometimes cranked up to ghoulish proportions, as in a protest march featuring an open coffin — in a fierce campaign to hasten the release of drugs that might help the hopeless. In one memorable scene, ACTUP members cover Sen. Jesse Helms’ house with a giant condom to protest his open hostility toward gays.
Drug-company and public-health scientists, meanwhile, recall their growing understanding of the insidious pathology of the HIV virus. While some of these contemporary interviews grow overly technical, they show how the white-hot anger of street protests sometimes was felt even in the dispassionate world of the lab. And many ACTUP members became, of necessity, expert in the mind-numbing detail of experimental AIDS drug treatments.
While the film avoids an entirely flattering portrait of ACTUP by documenting a schism within the group’s ranks, it gives scant attention to another important debate, about safer-sex practices, which many in the gay community viewed suspiciously.
The movie makes you think about the recent Occupy movement, which some have faulted for having a too-broad objective. In contrast, ACTUP had a very focused agenda — a mission, this film compellingly argues, that saved a lot of lives by raising a lot of hell.