Chronicling ACT UP activists

Peter Staley in a scene from David France's new documentary "How to Survive a Plague."

Few protest movements since the civil rights battle of the 1950s and 1960s can claim they led to actual change in public policy.

Fewer still have been as dramatic, determined and rousing as the grassroots group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) which arose in response to the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s and whose story is told in the new documentary How to Survive a Plague.

Founded by playwright Larry Kramer in 1987, ACT UP fought a decadelong campaign against politicians, pundits, news reporters, scientists, doctors, the federal government, and pharmaceutical companies to bring attention to the so-called "gay plague" and to develop ways of fighting it.

Once formed, ACT UP established itself in the public consciousness with a superb slogan, "Silence = Death." And it displayed its take-no-prisoners approach by adopting as its symbol the pink triangle, the marker gays were forced to wear by the Nazis.

It became notorious for its in-your-face stunts - invading Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York; placing a giant canvas condom over Sen. Jesse Helms' North Carolina house; breaking into the CBS News studios during a broadcast of the evening news; scattering the ashes of AIDS victims on the White House lawn.

But as director David France shows in How to Survive a Plague, ACT UP also spearheaded health education, set up support groups, produced policy papers, and spawned major growth in scientific research. It radically sped up the development of new drugs to combat AIDS and effected their rapid deployment in experimental trials and their approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

Before ACT UP came along, AIDS was a death sentence. By the mid-1990s, it had become a manageable disease.

France's film uses home movies and archival news footage to chronicle the work of activists Ann Northrop, Peter Staley, Iris Long, Bob Rafsky, and Mark Harrington as they organize ACT UP offensives, or sit quietly over a drink wondering how many of them will die before their goals are achieved.

How to Survive a Plague is assembled in a montage style that is hard to take at times - it cuts from found footage to contemporary interviews to home movies showing emaciated, ravaged AIDS patients nearing death, and back again to news footage.

It can feel inchoate, dropping the viewer in the middle of events without much context, and it exacts an emotional toll.

But its raw quality also makes it compelling viewing.

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or

How to Survive a Plague

Directed by David France. With Mark Harrington, Gregg Gonsalves, Larry Kramer, David Barr, Spencer Cox, Peter Staley, Gregg Bordowitz, Garance Franke-Ruta, Bill Bahlman, Derek Link. Distributed by Sundance Selects.

Running time: 1 hours, 49 minutes.

Parent's guide: Unrated ().