During the height of the AIDS crisis, Peter Staley was one of the most visible faces of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP.
A rising star as a bond trader in New York City and deeply closeted, he became infected with HIV and joined the front lines of activism. He even debated safe sex with conservative columnist Pat Buchanan on CNN.
Staley's remarkable story is one of many that are touched on in the new documentary How to Survive a Plague which had an emotional screening at LA's Outfest Film Festival on Wednesday (18 July).
Staley, who joined director David France for a post-screening discussion, said it was 'disheartening' that the LGBT community – even the AIDS activists themselves – seemed to move on so quickly to such issues as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and gay marriage once effective drug treatments were made available.
'We never processed the worst years of it,' he said. 'A lot of us put it on a shelf emotionally. It took awhile before we could look back and remember what we all went through.'
'It’s time now,' Staley added. 'We need to remember these people. … Tell some friends about these incredible lives.'
The rich history of ACT UP is what motivated France to make the film which includes interviews with surviving ACT UP members and is mostly comprised of footage members took during demonstrations, meetings and even group therapy sessions.
In all, he had 700 hours of footage for the two-hour film and initially produced a 13 hour movie.
'It took us two days to watch it and we loved every bit,' France said. 'We didn’t want to take any of it out. We told the stories of people whose lives were lived brilliantly. To take any of it out seemed like an act of cruelty. But we had to make the film digestible.'
The drug treatments that became available in the mid-90s would not have happened if not for the work of ACT UP members. They may be best known for their dramatic protests on Wall Street and at The White House but they also elevated themselves with their own self-education about drugs and interacted with scientists, researchers and regulators.
'For a long time, I’ve wanted to tell the story of how those dark days ended – the combined brilliance that worked together to tame a virus,' France said.
Staley hopes young activists like those involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement will watch films like How to Survive a Plague, United in Anger and Vito.
'Learn this history,' he advised. 'When I joined ACT UP, I didn’t know anything about gay history. I didn’t even know who Harvey Milk was.'
Then Staley watched the documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk and said 'it centered me as an activist and it informed me going forward.'
How to Survive a Plague, which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, will be released theatrically in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco on Sept. 21.