After making a big impact on the film festival circuit this year, the documentary How to Survive a Plague is opening in selected US theaters this weekend.
Director David France calls it a ‘quintessentially American story’ which tells ‘a story of how a few disenfranchised individuals with no formal training, no political power, and initially at least no natural allies chose to do something enormous.’
To tell that story, France went through 700 hours of archival footage taken by the grass-roots activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and gives viewers a front-row seat to the epic day-to-day battles that ultimately resulted in AIDS no longer being a death sentence.
The drug treatments that became available in the mid-90s would not have happened if not for the work of ACT UP members who elevated themselves with their own self-education which enabled them to demand a seat at the table with scientists, researchers and regulators.
‘These are activists who invented the idea of citizen scientists,’ France tells TheWrap ‘Even though they had no science background, they became really effective partners with pharmaceutical researchers.’
‘That’s a little known story about what ACT UP was about, because at the time the headlines were dismissive and they were seen in the media as angry young people bereft from loss, but who were not constructive, which is not the truth.’
But the filmmaker found that not everyone was eager to relive this period of their history.
‘Fifteen or 16 years out from when (the 700 hours of footage was) shot, many of the survivors who had witnessed these events had simply stopped sharing our stories,’ says France, who lost his lover to AIDS in 1992. ‘It parallels what we know about survivors of the Holocaust who also have disdain for reviewing that chapter in their lives and who don’t want to revisit it.’
‘It was important to tell a true story about how individuals found the wherewithal to surmount the insurmountable,’ he adds. ‘It was really just a wonderful opportunity to look back at that period in history and see what lesson we could learn from it.’