Scene On Film: ‘How to Survive a Plague’

March 29, 2013
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By Joan Ellis

How quickly we forget. Writer/director David France has done us all a favor by assembling the chronological history of the AIDS epidemic in the Academy Award nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.

I watched this film in a nearly empty high school auditorium. Why empty? Today’s students hadn’t even been born when AIDS began its unchecked spread in 1981. By the mid ‘90s when HIV positive people could control their disease with drugs, fear had diminished. The explosive reality of AIDS has vanished for young people who have other things on their minds. Thirty-two years after it hit the U.S., the wave of this generation is carrying them toward the cause of human rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual issues while the once uninterested establishment is closing in on a cure.

The AIDS epidemic is documented in How to Survive a Plague.

The AIDS epidemic is documented in How to Survive a Plague.

In 1981, rumors had begun to spread in whispers about a disease that was striking white males. Deadly, and fatal, were words that accompanied the stories. Was it a form of cancer? Why did dark splotches appear on victims? What was it? No one talked about it. By the time 500,000 men had died from it, survivors knew that hospitals would refuse treatment, funeral homes would refuse services and victims would be taken away in black garbage bags.

When it was established that the new plague was a sexually transmitted disease, fear escalated as people tried to understand whether it was spread by contact, act, fluid, air or germ. Born of ignorance and reality, fear rose on all fronts. In reaction, victims and their friends, organized in militant protest marches to demand help and recognition. In 1987 their groups coalesced as Act Up and TAG whose public demonstrations often ended in violent confrontations with police.

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It is easy now to say that violent protest was the wrong choice, but in the face of stonewalling by hospitals, government, politicians and drug companies, did the protest groups have any choice but to escalate their militancy? This film makes it abundantly clear that nothing would have happened through diplomatic efforts. Patrick Henry and Sam Adams, after all, railed angrily before the revolution and then stepped aside for calmer men. The Vietnam draft riots were essential to forcing the end of that senseless war. Does it take rage to rally the country to a cause? It seems the answer is yes.

By their angry public protests, Act Up and TAG brought professional and public recognition to the AIDS tragedy. They educated themselves with the unfolding knowledge of cause and treatment and earned seats at the research table. By the mid-90s, Act Up advocates were working with drug companies, doctors and scientists and from this cooperation came the discovery by medical researchers that a blend of three drugs could control the disease and prevent death.

Where would this disease be without the early angry noise from Peter Staley, Larry Kramer and Iris Long whose strident determination forced the country to recognize that AIDS was killing millions while the establishment watched in silence?


Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is

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