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Silence = Death

Allie Tollaksen | Monday, April 15, 2013


The Center for Social Concerns teamed up with the Browning Cinema Friday to present “How To Survive A Plague,” an Academy Award-nominated documentary about the AIDS activist group ACT UP.  ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, formed in the mid-1980s as an advocacy group for people suffering from HIV and AIDS as the disease reached epidemic levels in New York City.

“How To Survive A Plague” takes its audience through the history of AIDS in America from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s. ACT UP included hundreds of participants, but the movement intentionally elected a single leader. This way, the film focuses on many key activists who were involved in the ACT UP movement, including those involved in AIDS research, advocacy and legislation.

Assistant Professor of Sociology, Terence McDonnell, who researches AIDS movements like ACT UP, introduced the film. He encouraged the audience to notice the visuals used by ACT UP protestors. Footage taken from cameramen within the organization and from news sources chronicles the powerful protests ACT UP held, which included demonstrations against Wall Street, drug companies and the FDA. Throughout the movie, the organization’s motto, “Silence=Death,” and their symbol, a pink triangle, can be seen on every member over a dozen years, signifying the power and growth of their campaign.

The documentary, composed mostly of rare footage of ACT UP meetings, protests and homemade PSAs in a time when cameras needed two hands for holding, provides a glimpse into organizational power of the ACT UP movement and made the film fascinating from the start.

But while the organizational strength of ACT UP is chronicled in “How To Survive A Plague,” so is the heartbreaking tragedy of the AIDS epidemic. The film begins by presenting a worldwide death toll of the AIDS epidemic in the year 1983. As the film takes the audience through the proceeding years through the eyes of ACT UP, it also revisits that toll, reminding us of the enormous opponent the group is up against. The disease was not the only thing AIDS activists were trying to fight at this time – their obstacles included discrimination, homophobia, government bureaucracy and complacency from researchers and public health workers alike.

As the movie continues, it tells of the many accomplishments of the ACT UP movement. Through diligent research, civil disobedience and, as members recollect in interviews, pure anger, the organization helped give thousands of Americans access to AIDS treatment and made the AIDS epidemic a national issue. The organization gave a voice to the thousands of people suffering from the disease and forced politicians and drug companies to be accountable for the crisis. The actions and accomplishments of ACT UP were, in many ways, awe-inspiring.

The most commendable part of “How To Survive A Plague,” however, was its brutal honesty. The film doesn’t simply praise the activists, but examines the failures of the organization. In this way, the movie reflects a very human struggle, grappling with human loss, administrative setbacks, and periods of disbelief amongst even the most adamant supporters of ACT UP. 

If there is any theme that viewers should take away from the movie, it is a sense of hope in the fact that collective action by a group of impassioned advocates can create significant cultural and policy changes.  Without the aggressive campaigning and action by Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Bob Rafsky, David Barr and countless others, AIDS drugs and other antiretroviral medicines would not have been made available to the public. Stigmas regarding homosexual men and promiscuity that caused denial of treatment and ignorance of the disease still would surround AIDS in the United States today.

Of course, the fight against AIDS is not over, which the film definitively conveys. With the close of the film, “How To Survive A Plague” shows the number of people infected with AIDS today-a number now around 40 million. Though this fact is daunting, the film encourages us all to get involved with the fight against AIDS as well as the fight for health care justice and unity in marginalized communities. It is clear that though “How To Survive a Plague” tells of one community in one city over two decades, the legacy of ACT UP has and will live on.