It’s year six of the AIDS epidemic, 1987 in Greenwich Village, NYC. With no medical innovations to treat the disease, AIDS is 100% fatal. Panic surrounding this epidemic drives a backlash of blame along with anti-gay violence. Hope is shutdown as hospitals routinely turned away the dying. Fighting for their lives, patients and advocates take matters into their own hands.
David France’s first feature documentary, How To Survive A Plague, is a harrowing look at a disease that divided a nation and ostracized those infected with the virus. Two coalition groups emerged in 1987 to magnify the epidemic and pressure the FDA to rapidly research finding a cure. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group) forced AIDS into political conversation with dramatic protests and presentations.
Younger generations may understand that the AIDS battle concluded with a cure, but the fight to turn this fatal death sentence into a manageable disease, despite the national neglect, isn’t widely spoken about. Before the breakout of AIDS and AIDS activism, the gay community had no political voice, no spotlight in pop culture, and gay marriage was an unspoken topic of conversation. Director David France admits to being fired from a job in 1984 for being gay, because “that’s how it happened back then.” This was the abysmal norm in recent decades that seems too far out of touch to be in the past century.
Then-President Ronald Reagan addressed the topic of AIDS for the first time, after 20,000 Americans had already died from the disease. He called the epidemic “Public Enemy No. 1,” but advocated only a modest federal role in AIDS education, noting, “After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”
France doesn’t chronicle the fight for the survival amongst AIDS victims; he reveals a deplorable and unspoken chapter of our nation’s history, utilizing amateur archived footage to expose one of the nation’s darkest moments of neglect in recent memory.
“A number of years ago, I thought, enough time has passed, it’s now possible to go back and look at that time, look at the plague years before the advent of effective treatments and see what parts of that story we hadn’t yet told. All of the literature and films and storytelling about AIDS that we know and accept as kind of “the canon” was all produced then, in the middle of it, before it became clear that we were going to survive, or some people were going to survive, or survival was possible. So that’s the story I wanted to tell, how we as a community changed the epidemic.” David France via Interview Magazine.
The fight became religious and political by 1989, when the Catholic Church issued a statement condemning the immorality of condoms, putting them in direct opposition with US Heath Care. Protests at the Cathedral erupted with the question, “How many more have to die? Prayers won’t save those affected with the disease. You’re killing us!”
The documentary also exposes the fight’s political villains—Ronald Reagan (who invested minimally toward AIDS education), New York Mayor Ed Koch (who described ACT UP’s actions as “fascist”), President George H.W. Bush and New York archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor (both whom tried to focus the attention on gay promiscuity).
“Bring the dead to your door, we won’t take this anymore” became the mantra as victims and advocates brought the ashes and bones of the dead, pouring them onto the White House lawn.
Activists pushed for further education when the “cure” AZT became available on the market for $10,000 in 1989, prolonging life but not eradicating the virus. The issue finally arose in political debates when Bill Clinton addressed the matter, “This is not a matter of personal attack, it’s a matter of human loss. I feel your pain.”
France exposes one of the most politically hushed crusades in our nation’s fight for survival. Those inflicted with the disease were not treated as physically ill, but as pariahs, shunned from every facet of life. The relentless struggle by advocates, many of whom couldn’t say whether they had hope for their own survival, is not only heartbreaking, but remarkable in exposing how change can happen if you demand it.
“Everything about the way science and medicine is practiced today was a creation of these people. We watched them create it, in real time in this footage, in this film. You see how they’ve transformed the way drugs are identified and researched, designated and marketed. But what you don’t see, which is also true, is that they changed the way doctors and patients talk to each other. They gave power and voice to patients for the first time, and now it’s permanent. Any disease today, if you have breast cancer, you have representatives from your community who are struggling with breast cancer, survivors of breast cancer, sitting at the table with researchers, determining strategy and approach as they’re determining which drugs to test and how to design the drug trials. All of that involves patients now. It had never existed before ACT UP knocked the doors down to the halls of science and created that space at the table.” David France via Interview Magazine.
Number of Companies now making Effective Protease Inhibitors: 7
The number of lives saved: 6,000,000
The number of people who die because they can’t afford the AIDS drug: 2,000,000 every year; 5,500 every day; 4 every minute. ACT up. End AIDS. www.surviveaplague.com