The Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague, the definitive story of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, is the perfect example of what's meant by the phrase "history so recent that it's been forgotten." The newly diagnosed and their supporters, as we see, had plenty to fight against. New York City's municipal government, led by closeted mayor Ed Koch, accused them of using fascist tactics, and, meanwhile, federal agencies dawdled, despite the emergency.
The urgent, rapidly edited documentary styles itself as an underground TV broadcast. Much of it was snatched off the street and from the podiums at ACT-UP rallies, though there are important reminiscences from such figures as Larry Kramer and Dr. Barbara Starrett. Some of those shown who make the most impression are anonymous, such as the man seen in a homemade instructional video inserting a shunt into his own chest to deliver his medicine. (One always wonders about the lives the internet might have saved if it had been around a decade or two earlier.)
Many are aware of the historical value of what they were doing. "You're going to have a story to tell in the future," a nurse tells a strapped-in patient undergoing an experimental drug regimen. The afflicted imported their drugs from overseas, and became their own guinea pigs: AZT, the first drug commercially available to combat AIDS, was laden with bad side effects, and was murderously expensive at $10,000 a year in 1980s dollars.
How to Survive a Plague emphasizes the anger and desperation of those days, rather than the tragedy itself. We know how the story ended and how this horrific syndrome was finally slowed, at least in the First World and Europe. There's always the question, however, of what we can do with history once we've learned from it. And here's another question: What if an ACT-UP-like vanguard emerged to lead the millions at large currently being bilked and bled by the health insurance industries and Big Pharma?
'How to Survive a Plague' screens Tuesday, May 14, at the Sweetwater Music Hall. 7pm. $6–$10. 415.388.3850.