In his filmmaking debut, journalist David France, who wrote the first story about ACT UP for Miami New Times' sister paper The Village Voice, assembles a thoroughly reported chronicle of that direct-action advocacy group's most vital era, from its founding in 1987 (six years into the AIDS epidemic) through 1995.
Expertly compiled from hundreds of hours of archival footage -- depicting fractious meetings, infamous demonstrations like 1989's die-in at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and hospital visits with the gravely ill -- France captures the fury and commitment of ACT UP to target those in power who did nothing to stop the disease.
Present-day interviews with members who in 1987 doubted they'd live to see their 30th birthday deepen the film's impact as an essential document of queer history, stories rooted in New York City but with resonance across the country and across the world. How to Survive a Plague is a compilation of first-person remembrances, a time-toggling polyphony emphasizing both individual struggles and collective action-- the we of me.
France's subjects reflect back not only on the group's insurrections at the FDA, the NIH, the White House, and pharmaceutical-company headquarters, but also on their much-younger selves. Yet the director is always careful not to confuse "tribute" with "nostalgia." He includes electrifying footage of Larry Kramer erupting during a meeting after a prolonged exchange between unseen, nasty cavilers: "Plague! We're in the middle of a fucking plague, and you behave like this! ACT UP has been taken over by a lunatic fringe!"
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Two decades after this incident, Kramer makes another stirring claim: "Every single [treatment] drug that's out there is because of ACT UP, I am convinced. It is the proudest achievement that the gay population of this world can ever claim."
-- Melissa Anderson