If you didn’t know very much about the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s you might think that the title of this documentary was a little over the top. Nothing could be further from the truth. Death from AIDS in the USA was still rare in 1981 but by the end of the decade we were definitely in plague territory.
Director David France’s How To Survive A Plague may not be a point by point instruction manual but it is a pretty efficient guide to getting what you want from the unwilling authorities. And those authorities couldn’t have been any more unwilling; most still considered AIDS to be a result of ‘lifestyle choice’ and therefore not a high priority.
We follow a number of members of New York activist groups Act Up and TAG, those members coming from all sorts of backgrounds; some had HIV, some were concerned members of the press, some with a background in pharmacy, some gay and some not. What united them was the fight to delay the certain death sentence of many of their friends. Their aim was to secure even a partially efficient drug to combat Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
As the film progresses from 1987 (Act Up’s first protest) to 1996, a worldwide death toll punctuates the footage of rallies and protests; the toll hitting millions by the time an efficient drug, or combination of drugs is licensed for use in the USA.
The documentary goes some way to introduce us to each of the main campaigners but instead of apologising for or celebrating different ‘lifestyle choices’, the film focuses on something much more relevant, that which unites us all: humanity and fallibility. Campaigner Bob Rafsky, while playing with his young daughter, poignantly said; “decent community does not put people out to pasture for doing a human thing”. These campaigners unrelentingly, year after year, protest and bombard politicians, the FDA, health institute and every drug company in the USA with strategies for research and demands for drugs that actually worked.
I knew I would be affected by this story but I was unprepared for the level of hate and lack of care expressed by health organizations and senior politicians. The stories of what would happen to AIDS sufferers dying in hospitals is enough to make you want to renounce the human race and retire to another planet.
How To Survive A Plague, despite the hate and some inevitable activist in-fighting, is a very inspiring tale of the power of education and what can happen if you resolutely refuse to give up.
The London premiere of How To Survive A Plague will take place at the East End Film Festival on 08 July.