★★★★★ | How To Survive A Plague
“Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.” These are the words of Sir Winston Churchill, referring to the efforts of the Royal Air Force pilots fighting the Battle of Britain in 1940, but they are also the words that sprang into my mind after watching David France’s brilliant documentary How To Survive A Plague.
It tells the story of a small group of men and women, most of them HIV positive, who battled against government indifference and departmental incompetence, to save their own lives. In so doing they helped save the lives of 6.000,000.
This is a great piece of film-making that documents the courage and determination of these people in the face of appalling obstacles from a government that couldn’t give a damn. The overriding message from the Reagan, and then the Bush administration, was that gay people didn’t matter, that AIDS was a result of bad lifestyle choices, and that we deserved it.
Using archive footage, we are given stark reminders of the shock tactics they used to bring their plight to the attention of the world, culminating in the display of the 8,288 panels of the AIDS quilt in 1988, and the march on the White House, when relatives and lovers of the dead scattered the ashes of their loved ones onto the White House lawn. These were the days when funeral parlours refused the bodies of people who had died of AIDS, when hospital security guards barred AIDS patients from entering emergency wards.
Dark times indeed, chillingly brought to life again in the newsreel footage we see in this movie. But anger alone was not going to be enough to win the battle. We learn how these activists became scientists, taking on an intense study of virology, immunology, pharmacology and cellular biology in an attempt to help direct the global research effort.
Sadly, not all of the activists lived long enough to see the fruits of their labour; to see AIDS (or HIV) become a manageable condition, as it is today. Of those that did, the charismatic Peter Staley emerges as the undoubted star. Given just 18 months to live at the age of 26, he is galvanised into fighting for his life, and there is no doubt that his eloquence (not to mention his youthful good looks) helped spearhead the campaign.
David France tells this story clearly and unflinchingly, putting us right at the heart of the battle, the occasional heartbreak at failure and the euphoria surrounding success; even the internal rifts and skirmishes. Gripping, moving, inspiring, at times emotionally draining, it is a story that demands to be told. Required viewing for every gay man, particularly those under the age of 30, I recommend it absolutely. We owe our lives to these people. Surely the rest of us can spare them 110 minutes of our time.