Directed by David France. 14A. 110 min. Opens Nov. 2 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Unlike the Occupy movement and other modern public displays of mass discontent, ACT UP could never be criticized for being hazy about its objectives. Then again, the AIDS activist organization never had the time or the luxury to be anything but ruthless about its objectives, given the fear, confusion, and prejudice that surrounded the “gay plague,” as it was called in the early years of a crisis that would have a particularly devastating effect on the LGBT community in New York’s Greenwich Village.
David France’s How to Survive a Plague recounts how many of the neighbourhood’s apartments would be used to plan for battles that would directly challenge the government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, conservative politicians, and religious leaders that ACT UP held responsible for the rising death toll. Performed on such pieces of enemy terrain as the North Carolina headquarters of drug giant Burroughs-Wellcome and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the group’s impromptu occupations, choreographed demonstrations, and other forms of protest drew widespread media attention in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But like any grassroots organization that begins to punch above its weight, it would be threatened by internecine battles, as well as the crushing sense of disappointment that followed the hard-fought-for arrival of anti-AIDS drugs like AZT.
Since France largely foregoes the use of new interviews in favour of archival footage shot by participants, How to Survive a Plague is able to capture the anger and energy that defined ACT UP with an unusual degree of force and urgency. And while France’s film lacks the emphasis on personal perspectives that enriched United in Anger and We Were Here, two other recent docs on the AIDS crisis in America, it remains a remarkably cogent and compelling tribute to people who absolutely refused to let silence equal death.