‘How to Survive a Plague’

New Documentary ‘How to Survive a Plague’ Details ACT UP’s Heroic Role in AIDS Battle

How to Survive a Plague is a stirring chronicle of ACT UP’s campaign to pressure the scientific and medical community to find more drugs for people with AIDS.

09.26.12 8:45 AM ET

This has been an exceptional year for documentaries. BullyThe Queen of Versailles, Ai Weiwei, and Searching for Sugar Man are among the fine films to win strong reviews and even capture a substantial audience. A new movie to add to this list is How to Survive a Plague, which offers a fresh perspective on AIDS. The director, David France, describes it not as an AIDS documentary, but as a tribute to members of the gay community who battled the crisis.

In fact, two other movies with a similar slant have been produced in the last year. United in Anger examines the inner workings of ACT UP, the first group to challenge the government’s silence on AIDS. Vito, which played recently on HBO, is about activist and film historian Vito Russo, who died in 1990.

It may not be accidental that these films have emerged at a time of rising protest movements in the U.S. and abroad. David France’s movie in particular is a stirring chronicle that could be relevant to other activist groups fighting to make themselves heard.

France spent most of his career as a print journalist. He has written about AIDS for 30 years for publications including Newsweek and The New York Times, and he is currently at work on a book for Knopf that will cover some of the same medical history recounted in the film. He decided that for his first feature film, he did not want to make another memorial to the fallen. “There was a lot of tragedy during that period,” France says, “but there was also brilliant organizing in the gay community that eventually helped to bring HIV into submission. I wanted to tell a heroic story.”

France found his heroes among the members of ACT UP who formed a Treatment and Data Committee to pressure the scientific and medical community to find more drugs for people suffering with AIDS. If the movie has a protagonist, it probably would be Peter Staley, a leading member of this committee who became one of the public faces of ACT UP during the plague years.

Staley was someone who never intended to become an activist. After graduating from college, he moved to New York in 1983 to work for JP Morgan as a bond trader. Staley describes himself as “deeply closeted” at the time, but when he learned in late 1985 that he was HIV-positive, his life changed. “I came out to my family at that point,” Staley reports, “and they were very supportive, kind of like Tom Hanks’s family in Philadelphia. But I decided I had to stay closeted at work. For about a year I was a bond trader by day and an activist by night. I worked in fundraising and avoided demonstrations.”

After the stock market crash of 1987, Staley decided to leave Wall Street and go on disability. He also plunged into more demonstrations. He explains, “My first arrest was a year later, and on TV I was identified as ‘Peter Staley, AIDS victim.’” He soon took on a different role. In 1988 he was participating in a demonstration against the FDA. “I was on an overhang above the building,” Staley says. “But Michelangelo Signorile, who was the media director for ACT UP, yelled up to me, ‘Peter, don’t get arrested today. I’ve just booked you on Crossfire!’”

He did get down from the overhang and made his first TV appearance debating Pat Buchanan about the FDA’s foot-dragging policies on AIDS drugs. To his surprise, Buchanan agreed with some of his arguments, though the right-wing commentator grew noticeably uncomfortable when Staley talked about the value of “lubrication” in AIDS prevention. From that point on, Staley became one of the most visible public figures in the fight for more affordable and effective drug treatments. In 1990 he was invited to address the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco.

Fortunately for France, Staley’s public appearances and those of many other activists existed in footage recorded at the time. France began the film by weeding through the archives that existed at the New York Public Library, and that led him to many individuals who had made their own recordings with camcorders that were the precursors of today’s iPhones. Staley was one of the first people contacted by France.

“Most of my friends from ACT UP did not want me to get involved with David,” Staley says. “He wasn’t one of us, and they were suspicious of him. I could tell David was intimidatingly ambitious and driven, but I think you need those qualities to make a good documentary. So I trusted him, and I’m glad that I did.”

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France decided to focus on Staley’s group and their fight to speed clinical trials to help AIDS patients. Eventually, the members of the committee became so well educated about medical data that they were consulted regularly by leading AIDS doctors. It was in 1996 when the new protease inhibitors changed the whole face of the epidemic and drastically cut the number of fatalities. “That breakthrough would never have happened in 1996 without the efforts of the activists,” France says. “It would have taken several more years, and many more people would have died.”

In addition to chronicling these medical triumphs, France also acknowledges the bitter infighting within ACT UP that eventually led Peter Staley and other members of the Treatment & Data Committee to break away from ACT UP and form Treatment Action Group (TAG) to work more closely with the medical establishment. “Any activist movement has a lot of type A-plus personalities,” France suggests, “so there are bound to be clashes. Arrogance is a problem, and the TAG group was certainly guilty of this.”

Staley acknowledges the criticism. “We got very elitist and very arrogant,” he admits. “I regret that it happened, but it’s probably inevitable. Even within TAG, after we split, we had a lot of internal conflicts, and we brought in a weekend facilitator to deal with some of those tensions. Maybe ACT UP could have benefited from the same thing. I know that Larry Kramer remains very angry at me and others for splitting off.”

Kramer, a founder of ACT UP, describes Staley as a friend, but he does criticize the film for failing to give enough attention to this toxic infighting. “I think the film did a fine job overall,” Kramer says, “but it neglected to tell the full story. I feel that TAG was responsible for the breakup of ACT UP, and they downplayed that for the sake of a boffo ending.”

While this internal conflict should serve as a cautionary note for other activist groups seeking social change, the film may also inspire these groups. “ACT UP had an innovative strategy for grassroots organizing,” France says, “and it could serve as a model for other groups. At first they went out into the streets to block traffic, just like the Occupy movement today, and then they started to educate themselves on the science front. Occupy is still young, and they haven’t yet figured out what doors to knock on, but that’s because the economic system is a secret society that’s hard to penetrate.”

As France suggests, because of their confrontational tactics the demonstrators of ACT UP and TAG saved many lives—including their own. A surprising number of the activists pictured in the film, all of whom were infected with HIV, are still alive today. France believes that their knowledge of the latest medical advances may have helped them oversee their own treatment. Though Staley says: “I have to pin the primary reason for my survival on luck. It’s true I had a lot going for me. I had family support, which many people didn’t have. I didn’t have to worry about money. I benefited from the energy of ACT UP. I had access to the very latest information on AIDS drugs. But I know plenty of people who had all of those advantages and still died. I think I was lucky.”

Staley has joined France and producer Howard Gertler at many screenings of How to Survive a Plague. Now the challenge is persuading people to see a film that has received some of the year’s best reviews (100 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes) but faces resistance at the box office. France does not like to see it described as an AIDS documentary, which inevitably sounds like something of a downer.

“I think this is a fundamentally American tale about disenfranchised outsiders finding their way inside,” France says. “But I’m not a marketer. I’m not even a filmmaker.” That only makes his first-time achievement all the more remarkable.