J’accuse, then & now, David France’s powerful documentary about AIDS activists

1980s HIV-AIDS activist organizations ACT-UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) are the subjects of director David France’s visceral and stirring documentary “How to Survive A Plague.”

Along with tracking the lives of the men and women who put themselves on the line for these causes,France has assembled amazing archival footage of the group’s epic demonstrations in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, confronting the Food and Drug Administration over the release of AIDS drugs, pouring ashes of their lovers on the White House lawn and even the infamous ’condomming’ of antigay Jessie Helms’ home.

The power of these images and the thought-provoking interviews in the film take you inside the unprecedented activism of these groups. Most moving in revealing the high wire act these activists were walking, most of them battling the disease themselves. The members, with ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer leading the charge, saved lives and galvanized gay activism. It is also a history of the solidarity of gays, lesbians, and straight allies in a perilous time.

The private stories of those who fought and died as well as those who lived long enough to received effective drug treatment, is the heart of the film, but France doesn’t pull back for revealing the internal struggles of ACT-UP as well. As the movement becomes more effective, organizers disagree on the mission for quick AIDS drug trials and bypassing FDA approvals. This reaches a fevered pitch in the early 90s when AIDS deaths were cresting, even as they have to grapple with the fact that they might be chasing so much snake oil.

The end of the film reveals that, even with effective drugs, AIDS is still a worldwide epidemic. France has reasserted a powerful message that we must always be ready to fight for justice for our people wherever they are being silenced, ignored, harassed or, as it was expected then by politicians, just dying off.

France is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author who has been writing about AIDS since 1982 and will release a book in 2013 with a history of the AIDS epidemic. Meanwhile, don’t miss this film.