Writer, reporter, journalist and filmmaker David France and AIDS-activist Peter Staley, who features prominently in the film, stopped by the wonderful Duke’s at Komedia in Brighton last Sunday to present his Oscar-nominated documentaryHow to Survive a Plague. After the screening, they were joined by Ugandan gay rights activist Dr. Frank Mugisha and Enrique Restoy from the International HIV/AIDS alliance for a lively and informative Q&A session about the film and activism in general. Talking for a nearly an hour the panellists never ran out of interesting things to say, particularly Staley who is an excellent orator and can draw upon 30 years of experience as an activist.
The film itself then explores the fight of AIDS-activists against the inactivity of the government regarding research on this horrible disease. Here France makes a (right) choice to narrow his focus and tell the story of a specific group of activists: Act Up, during a specific period of time: from their appearance in 1987 from within the LGBT-community in Greenwich Village, to the discovery of a new treatment in 1996. Of course there is much more to tell on the history of AIDS and the fight against it, which is apparent in some moments, but these limitations allow the film to paint a close portrait of this extraordinary group of people who, in a moment of crisis, rallied together and made change happen.
A very personal project for the director, who has been chronicling Act Up for years, the film has talking heads looking back at the events, but was mostly assembled from hours and hours of stock footage shot by members of the movement. This gives the audience a fascinating insight into the group, and the characters that form it. In order to challenge the established health care systems, this group of hippies had to familiarize themselves with science and medical research and become experts in their field. They did this with such excellence, that they soon moved from street activism to being important members of research committees and bringing about real change.
How to Survive a Plague unashamedly and clearly takes the sight of Act Up and this is fine. No claim to neutrality is ever made. My only reservation about the film is that it got extremely scientific in a couple of moments, explaining the workings of the HIV virus and the various drugs, during which it lost me temporarily.
Overall, How to Survive a Plague is an inspiring piece of work, which should be seen more than it is (to my knowledge, only two screenings are planned in Brighton). Particularly younger audiences, who know little about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s, can take a lot from this film, which shows the importance and potential of political activism. Furthermore, as Dr. Mugisha pointed out, the issues raised by Act Up in America 20 years ago are very much the same as the ones still relevant in Africa today, where people die from AIDS every day due to a lack of care.