A gripping new documentary, How To Survive A Plague, revisits the nightmarish clash of the 1980s AIDS crisis in America, yet fosters a remarkable sense of hope. ”I sat down to watch How to Survive a Plague expecting to cry, and cry I did… I expected to be angry… What I didn’t expect was how much hope I would feel. How much comfort,” wrote Frank Bruni of the New York Times, ”While the movie vividly chronicles the wages of bigotry and neglect, it even more vividly chronicles how much society can budge when the people exhorting it to are united and determined and smart and right. The fight in us eclipses the sloth and surrender, and the good really does outweigh the bad.”
Faced with their own mortality, an improbable group of young people, many of them HIV-positive young men, broke the mold as radical warriors taking on Washington and the medical establishment:
How To Survive A Plague is the story of two coalitions—ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group)—whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition. Despite having no scientific training, these self-made activists infiltrated the pharmaceutical industry and helped identify promising new drugs, moving them from experimental trials to patients in record time. With unfettered access to a treasure trove of never-before-seen archival footage from the 1980s and ’90s, filmmaker David France puts the viewer smack in the middle of the controversial actions, the heated meetings, the heartbreaking failures, and the exultant breakthroughs of heroes in the making.
ACT UP’s patchwork organization and intense tactics built the modern protest landscape for movements like Occupy Wall Street. In 1989, seven activists snuck onto the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange and chained themselves to the VIP balcony before unfurling a banner that read “Sell Wellcome,” referencing the only pharmaceutical sponsor of AZT. Burroughs Wellcome had set the price of AZT at an astronomical $10,000 annually. Trading was briefly halted for the first and only instance outside of wartime, and within a matter of days the price of AZT plummeted to $6,400.
“We had the brainpower, and we had the street power,” says Larry Kramer, founding member of ACT UP, in the film. “We got those drugs out there. It is the proudest achievement that the gay population of this world can ever claim.”