Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #24: How to Survive a Plague

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

How to Survive a Plaque
 (released September 2012)

ACT UP member Peter Staley dragged away from the scene of a demonstration

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: This 2012 Best Documentary Oscar nominee begins with a thirty-second montage of five hospitalized people literally wasting away to skin and bones because of AIDS. Their deaths are inevitable and imminent; it's an inescapable conclusion. Those thirty seconds are a painful reminder to those of us who lived through the worst of the AIDS pandemic, and a startling introduction to anyone who did not. Director David France does not linger on these images. Instead, he wisely chooses to plunge directly into a riveting six-minute sequence that introduces you to New York City's ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. An unidentified speaker describes it as "the diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis." It's March 1989. Footage of an actual ACT UP protest planning meeting are juxtaposed with the nonsensical press conference ramblings of the city's mayor, Ed Koch. Then, thousands of ACT UP members and supporters descend on City Hall for the largest demonstration in the group's two-year history -- a condemnation of the city's inadequate response to the AIDS crisis. Police arrive. Hundreds are arrested. There are no reenactments or talking heads soberly describing what happened. This is what happened.

One of the most remarkable things about How to Survive a Plague is that the majority of the film consists of footage from over 30 different videographers who recorded all kinds of meetings, demonstrations and unguarded personal moments as they were happening back in the 1980s and '90s. Combined with mainstream news footage and interviews with people who were there, this elucidating documentary reveals how ACT UP coalesced, strategized and chose its targets: politicians, religious leaders, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies. ACT UP and the members of its treatment and data committee (who essentially had to become scientists), questioned everything from the National Institutes for Health's research priorities to the Food and Drug Administration's sluggish medication approval process. ACT UP members infiltrated government committee meetings and demanded to know, "Who represents the patient on this panel?" ACT UP presented the uncommunicative, byzantine labyrinth of U.S. health agencies with a national AIDS treatment and research agenda and even developed a glossary of AIDS treatment terms -- because the bureaucrats couldn't come up with these things themselves. The film is a blistering indictment of institutionalized indifference and government apathy.

The demonstrations -- influential and infamous -- are here, like the siege of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration building, including the hanging of a "Silence = Death" banner over the entrance, as well as the controversial die-in inside New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, organized in direct response to Archbishop Cardinal O'Connor's public condemnation of safer sex education and flagrant lies about condoms. In contrast, but certainly no less controversial, was ACT UP's ingeniously mischievous decision to drape the North Carolina home of virulently homophobic senator Jesse Helms with a giant condom as his confused and bewildered neighbors watched. The large-scale protests are compelling, but there are so many powerful smaller moments, like when ACT UP's Bob Rafsky forced 1992 presidential hopeful Bill Clinton to speak about AIDS for the first time in public. Or, before introducing Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of AIDS Research for the National Institutes of Health, to a packed room for a town-hall type treatment meeting, the moderator reminds everyone this isn't a free-for-all, it's a "working confrontation." And the first thing Dr. Fauci hears is definitely not, "Thanks for being here today."

The monumental challenge for a film like this is arranging footage for maximum narrative impact while sustaining context. So many documentaries try to do too much, going broad and inevitably undermining cogency. Not here. The producers, editors and director David France have made impeccable choices in assembling this film; it never loses focus. Nor do the filmmakers sanitize or sugarcoat anything; ACT UP's own internal conflicts, fractious meetings and organizational split are included. To keep things grounded, there's sparing but effective use of new interviews involving a handful of the original activists and allies, like Larry Kramer and Ann Northrup. But if the film has one evident through line, it comes by way of Peter Staley, a former Wall Street bond trader who joined ACT UP not long after its inception and became a key player. He looks like the kind of guy you take home to meet mom, so it's fascinating to watch him scrambling up the side of a building to hang a banner, then later deliver a stirring speech to hundreds of people at an AIDS conference. There was clearly an alchemy between Staley and ACT UP that released his inner audacious warrior.

Because of the remarkable archival footage available to the filmmakers and their clear-eyed treatment of the subject, it is impossible to overstate the significance of How to Survive a Plague. It is an unflinching depiction of what an improbably diverse group of people had to do in order to successfully reverse the tide of an epidemic. And what they had to do was this: refuse to be ignored, engage in fearless acts of civil disobedience and literally shame their own government, and the country's medical establishment and pharmaceutical industry into moral, ethical and compassionate behaviors. It wasn't going to happen by asking politely.

On the Personal Side... I put off watching How to Survive a Plague innumerable times. My longtime activist friend, Terri, asked me repeatedly since the film's release if I had seen it yet. "No," I'd tell her. "I'm just not ready." What I instinctively knew, but never told her, is that How to Survive a Plague was probably going to be an endurance test for me. I became sexually active with other men around 1983, so my entire adult life has involved  HIV/AIDS -- dating, testing, condom negotiations, working at CNN during the worst years of it, becoming infected myself, experiencing countless deaths, and jumping into a second career developing and facilitating workshops for people infected with or affected by the virus. I feared this documentary would take me through an overwhelming range of emotions. And frankly, I have already been through an overwhelming range of emotions.

Around the Summer Solstice, Father's Day and my birthday -- events that coincided with the 21st anniversary of living with HIV in my own body -- I decided to watch this documentary and review it for this blog series. I had to stop the DVD repeatedly and breathe. At one point I got up, paced around my loft and sobbed for ten solid minutes until I literally felt dizzy and dehydrated. I was not crying because How to Survive a Plague is a sad movie that dwells on death. It does not dwell on death, though the film never lets you forget that ACT UP emerged because people were dying. And there was only one scene that I personally found to be devastatingly sad beyond words. How to Survive a Plague affected me profoundly, as I expected it would, but I finally realized what those tears were really about: catharsis. You can only repress three decades worth of sorrow for so long, and this film gave me permission to release a whole lot of stuff I didn't even realize was pent up inside of me.

One last thing. Sometimes I have to listen to people who've never been to a demonstration in their lives dismiss the actions of ACT UP as "too extreme," or "bad for the image of the gay community." So, for the record, here's my response to them: Fuck you. I'll get back to you when I want to have an in depth conversation about Madonna. In the meantime, why don't you try to wrap your mind around a couple of facts. First, activism is not for the faint hearted or people who find loud talking in public spaces uncomfortable. ACT UP's response to the widespread American antipathy and fear about AIDS was exactly right. They got people to hear and see them without waving guns, planting bombs or crashing planes into skyscrapers. You might want to get some perspective around what constitutes extreme actions. Furthermore, the only reason there are over 30 drugs approved for the treatment of HIV in 2014 is because of the explicit and reasonable demands made by the men and women of ACT UP back in the day. The truth is that many of my friends -- and probably some of yours --  are only here because ACT UP infiltrated government agencies and the pharmaceutical industry with the inarguably laudable goal of helping to identify promising medications and getting them into expanded drug trials quickly. I'm fiercely proud of the confrontational methods of ACT UP and grateful for their dogged determination. ACT UP is the reason I am alive today and can go off on an invigorating rant like this. 

Should You See It? I worried that my personal history with HIV/AIDS would make it difficult to write objectively about this documentary. So, let me say a little something about my process here. I watched it once and had my emotions. A few days later, I watched it a second time with a deliberately critical eye. The filmmakers behind How to Survive a Plague had the daunting and meticulous task of distilling down an epic ten-year period into something not only comprehensible but engrossing. Mission accomplished; this is expertly paced, searing storytelling. If you're unfamiliar with ACT UP, How to Survive a Plague will most likely be an absorbing -- and shocking -- American history lesson. This is not just essential filmmaking -- it's very likely a seminal work.

If you would like to see a short interview with director David France, in which he describes his impetus for the film and a little bit about the process of putting it all together, go here.

Next Week: Do the Right Thing (1989)

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