thoughts on how to survive a plague

thoughts on how to survive a plague

A few of the Aggregate team members recently got the chance to attend a screening of How to Survive a Plague, a documentary about the AIDS activist movement in the early days of the pandemic.

From: Alison Byrne Fields
To: Haley Sides, Melissa Duque
Subject: Thoughts on How to Survive a Plague

Melissa & Haley,

I’m really glad you finally got the chance to go see How to Survive a Plague. I’ve been in love with the film since seeing it with friends at Sundance at the beginning of the year and have been on a mission to encourage everyone I know to see it too.

There are so many things that I love about the film: how effective the use of old Hi8 and VHS footage is at conveying the intimacy and DIY nature of the movement, the message that self-interest is a perfectly justifiable motivator for becoming an activist, the “characters” in the film, how strategic the activists were to educate themselves about the science to better enable them to know what to ask for and to partner with researchers, the unexpected decision by the director, David France, not to demonize Big Pharma and to portray their researchers as heroes in their own right. This list could keep going.

A few months back, I had the opportunity to speak with David France, who said that his goal with the film was that the story of the HIV/AIDS movement would become part of the canon. After hearing him say that, I found this great quote on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s site about the Black civil rights movement in the United States:

“The civil rights movement is one of the defining events in American history, providing a bracing example of Americans fighting for the ideals of justice and equality. When students learn about the movement, they learn what it means to be an active American citizen. They learn how to recognize injustice. They learn about the role of individuals, as well as the importance of organization. And they see that people can come together to stand against oppression.”

Ensuring people see and know the story of How to Survive a Plague has that same power.

Tell me what you think. What stood out most for you?

– Alison

From: Haley Sides
To: Alison Byrne Fields, Melissa Duque
Subject: Re: Thoughts on How to Survive a Plague

Hi Alison and Meli,

Thank you for sending us to see How to Survive a Plague, Alison. Being born in the mid 80s, I was young and don’t have a strong recollection of the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s. This film beautifully portrays the extent to which AIDS activists had to go to compel society, the government and the scientific community  to act on this crisis. I found it amazing to see everyday people becoming experts and building legitimacy within the scientific community. The personal narratives of people living with HIV/AIDS combined with the evolution of activism around the HIV/AIDS crisis made for one of the most humbling, saddening, yet empowering documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The film also spoke to me on a very personal level. I found out in 2002 that a loved one of mine had just been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. This film put in perspective for me that in the U.S., between 2002 and only a decade prior, the difference in such a diagnosis is literally the difference between living with HIV/AIDS and dying from it. I couldn’t help but to reach out to Peter Staley after the film and thank him and others for fighting for not only his own life but the lives of so many others.  By the way, Alison, Peter messaged me back and said to give you a big hug for being such a great supporter of the film. (((HUGS)))

One aspect of the film that spoke to me the most was the question of how society treats people who do human things. I’ll never forget sitting in class my senior year of high school, less than a year after I saw my own family member come *this close* to death, and hearing a classmate angrily say, “Why don’t we just kill every person who has HIV/AIDS?!” As the ACT UP activist Bob Rafsky put it in the film, “A decent society does not put people out to pasture and let them die because they’ve done a human thing.” Bob did not live to see the tides turn in 1995-96, but his words, his drive, his desperate plea to society, is haunting. The work he and others did has forced society to confront the ways in which we stigmatize HIV/AIDS and those living with it.

That’s my take on the film. I hope every person I know, or don’t know for that matter, takes the time to watch How to Survive a Plague, and that it sparks more open, sincere dialogue about HIV/AIDS.

– Haley

From: Melissa Duque
To: Haley Sides, Alison Byrne Fields
Subject: Re: Thoughts on How to Survive a Plague 

Haley & Alison,

It’s been almost a week since we watched the movie and the home videos of Bob Rafsky featured in the film are still with me. The entire film was done beautifully and I respect and adore how David France was able to weave in the story of Robert Rafsky’s fight against AIDS. But I’m not talking about Bob’s speeches at ACT UP or his confrontation with then presidential candidate Bill Clinton; I’m talking about those home videos shared throughout the film documenting his relationship with his daughter, Sara.It’s those quiet moments between a father and his daughter that tell the story of AIDS that no amount of pamphlets, statistics or infographics could ever do. In the videos I saw a man fighting against AIDS, and fighting to have more time with his little girl. At times the videos made me smile and other times I cried as I watched Bob’s health deteriorate.

That night after I watched the film, I kept thinking about that little girl. I mean how could I not, my last image of her was at her dad’s funeral crying. I decided to search for Sara. I found out that she’s a research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists Americas program. In 2008 she was awarded a Fulbright Grant to research photojournalism and the Colombian armed conflict. What an incredible woman.

Haley, I put the quote you shared from Rafsky on our wall. It’s a great reminder of what we are working towards.

-Meli

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