How to Survive a Plague

December 30, 2013


David France

Two grassroots coalitions are made up of innovative activists who fought to turn AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.


About the Documentary

In the dark days of 1987, America was six years into the AIDS epidemic, a crisis that was still largely being ignored both by government officials and health organizations — until the sudden emergence of the activist group ACT UP in Greenwich Village, New York, largely made up of HIV-positive participants who refused to die without a fight. Along with TAG (Treatment Action Group), and emboldened by the power of rebellion, they took on the challenges that public officials had ignored, raising awareness of the disease through a series of dramatic protests. More remarkably, they became recognized experts in virology, biology, and pharmaceutical chemistry.

Their efforts would see them seize the reins of federal policy from the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) and NIH (National Institutes of Health), force the AIDS conversation into the 1992 presidential election, and guide the way to the discovery of effective AIDS drugs that turned an HIV diagnosis from a death sentence into a chance to live long and healthy lives.

First-time director David France culls from a huge amount of never-before-seen archival footage — most of it shot by the protestors themselves (31 videographers are credited) — to create not just an historical document, but an intimate and visceral recreation of the period through the very personal stories of some of ACT UP and TAG’s leading participants. How to Survive a Plague captures both the joy and terror of those days, and the epic day-by-day battles that finally made AIDS survival possible.

The Filmmakers

David France

David France is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author who has been writing about AIDS since 1982, beginning in gay community papers. Today he is one of the best-known chroniclers of the epidemic, having continued in The New York Times, where he was AIDS news writer in the 1990s; Newsweek, where he was senior editor for investigations until 2003; and GQ and New York magazine, where he is a contributing editor. France has received the National Headliner Award and the GLAAD Media Award, and has seen his work inspire several films, most recently the Emmy-nominated Showtime film Our Fathers. He is at work on a major history of AIDS, due out soon from Alfred A. Knopf.

Full Credits


  • 2013 Academy Award Nomination

    Best Documentary Feature

  • 2012 New York Film Critics Circle Award

    Best First Film

  • 2013 George Foster Peabody Awards

    Award Winner

Learn more about the documentary

Join the Discussion

Do you remember the early days of the AIDS crisis? How far would you go to fight for a cure to a disease directly or indirectly affecting your life?


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