ASPEN - Mobs of people demonstrating outside an institutional office building, waving cleverly phrased posters, being confronted by the police - it's so easy to feel sympathy for their cause. And just as easy to ask: Why do they bother? What will shouting and chanting and getting arrested accomplish?
"How to Survive a Plague," David France's documentary about the movement to get AIDS drugs developed and distributed, makes it harder to be cynical about the efficacy of street protest. It's hard to call the battle against AIDS a complete success: France points out that, if there had been a proper medical response in 1981, when The New York Times first reported on the disease, it could have been contained, and he adds that 18,000 Americans a year still die of the disease.
But "How to Survive a Plague," which stands as an Academy Award nominee for best documentary and shows Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House, has something like a triumphant narrative. Those protesters - mostly young, gay men infected with AIDS, centered around downtown Manhattan, working in the arts - forced the scientific community to make available drugs that, over less than a decade's time, took AIDS from a death sentence to a generally manageable condition.
"The doctors would have figured it out eventually," France said in a phone interview. "But the activists cut off years of research and saved millions of lives."
The film consists largely of footage of protesters in action - demonstrating in Greenwich Village, occupying the National Institutes of Health offices near Washington, D.C., provoking politicians including George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The activists are so desperate, so numerous, so loud, that you get the sense that they earned their victories by sheer volume and determination. But France says the movement learned, after some time, that shouting alone wasn't going to work because it wasn't that the drug manufacturers were indifferent - they were operating in unknown territory.
"The scientists were just as lost as the protesters," France said. "They was no idea how to treat a viral infection. It had never been accomplished."
The AIDS movement, though, was well-organized - witness the fact that "How to Survive a Plague" had thousands of hours of video of demonstrations, meetings, bedside scenes from which to draw. They were smart enough to develop a strategy that had a relatively small number of people working on the inside - learning the science, the politics, the drug-review processes - while larger crowds kept up the shouting. As the movie has it, the activists' success can be attributed to the self-education that went on inside the movement. They weren't merely demanding a cure; they were guiding drug companies to look at medicines like saquinavir and pointing out specific flaws in the way the Food and Drug Administration reviewed drugs.
France has been covering the movement from the beginning. He began writing about ACT UP - AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which is prominent in the film - in 1987, when the group was founded. He covered AIDS, mostly from a scientific angle, in the gay press, which in the early '80s was the only source of information about the disease; he later wrote for Newsday and The New York Times. Among his main targets were peer-reviewed medical journals, which could sit on vital information about drugs for two years.
France has since made a career as an investigative reporter covering gay-
oriented topics. His books include "Our Fathers," about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and "The Confession," written with Jim McGreevey, who announced his homosexuality while he was governor of New Jersey. It's not the kind of work France envisioned when he was studying philosophy at the New School in New York.
"AIDS required you to do something," he said.