How to Survive a Plague | Pittsburgh City Paper

How to Survive a Plague

An inspirational doc that depicts how ACT UP fought for the rights of those with AIDS

Takin' it to the streets: ACT UP activist Peter Staley
Takin' it to the streets: ACT UP activist Peter Staley

David France's straightforward documentary How to Survive a Plague uses archival footage and news reports to depict how a relatively small group of angry people forced change in how people with AIDS/HIV were treated. Formed in New York City in 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) staged street demonstrations, media campaigns and in-house education, battling discrimination while fighting for adequate medical care and access to new drugs. The group's fervor came from anger, but also from an immediate need: The infected were fighting for their lives. 

The film is heartbreaking, naturally, in its frank depiction of those days of horror. But it is also inspirational, showing how that specific anger was channeled into productive causes ("Act up! Fight back!"). 

Changes fought for by ACT UP mean that two decades later, people with HIV don't face such appalling discrimination and institutional inaction, and there are drugs to keep the virus at bay. Ironically, this has allowed those who lived through that time to forget how frightening it was, and that AIDS still kills. France's film is a much-needed jolt — for old-timers' memories and young people's sense of complacency. It's a double-dose of truth: Your government and other trusted institutions can behave inhumanely (and might again) and you can fight back — and win.