SUNDANCE: How To Survive A Plague Resurrects The Energy And Sorrow Of Early AIDS Activism

Evan Mulvihill
has been reporting live from the best gay-interest screenings, parties and panels at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (PS: Check in on our sister site, GayCities, if you’re there!)

In the earliest days of AIDS activism, few in the media were paying attention to the renegade activists of AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP). But David France was.

France, a journalist on the movements’ outer fringe, has written about the epidemic for Newsweek, New York magazine, GQ, and numerous other publications. Now he’s channeled his consummate knowledge of AIDS activism into the brilliant new documentary How To Survive A Plague.

In the mid-’80s,  ACT UP finally got officials in New York to acknowledge the epidemic and some activists started going to Washington to lobby the FDA and NIH for effective drugs and procedures. This eventually led to the birth of the Treatment Action Group (TAG), devoted to learning the pharmaceurical know-how necessary to engage with government scientists.

France eloquently details the birth of TAG and the growing resentment of its slightly conservative tactics by members of the more revolutionary ACT UP. In one archival clip, Larry Kramer reminds fellow activists: “We’re in the middle of a plague—a plague!”

The camera zooms in on his eyes, which speak volumes. “And you’re fighting about this?!?”

France sifted through thousands of hours of footage recorded on camcorders in the late ’80s and ’90s, masterfully splicing together a tale which imparts, in equal parts, the anger and sorrow of AIDS victims who believe they will die from the then-unmanageable disease, the excitement and mischievousness of activists’ attention-grabbing antics, and the pride and joy of being on the front lines of a movement that helped make AIDS a survivable disease.

“I guess it was kind of fascinating to me that this had become a kind of ancient history,” he says. “That the ’80s needed explanation now. At some point your own story becomes history.”

I had the pleasure of attending Plague‘s premiere at Sundance this weekend and the audience reaction was incredible: France and his crew all enjoyed multiple standing ovations.

Check out my exclusive interview with France above, where we talk about his involvement in early AIDS activism, how the loss of his partner (to whom this movie is dedicated) inspired Plague, and what young gay activists can learn from their predecessors. 

Just yesterday, IFC acquired the rights to How to Survive a Plague for its Sundance Selects label. Hopefully this means you’ll be able to see the film at an indie moviehouse near you soon.

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