How to Survive a Plague: Reflections for World AIDS Day

Although World AIDS Day, marked for the 25th time overall on Dec. 1, gets just one day of recognition, a movie shown at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, co-sponsored by the Indianapolis LGBT Film Festival on Dec. 1, served as a poignant reminder as to how far the disease—and its treatment and prevention—have come since the early 1980s.

Unfortunately, the audience for How to Survive a Plague wasn’t the sold-out crowd that needs to see a film like this, but one hopes it will eventually find a larger audience via DVD, TV broadcast, and more formats. Today, the film was short-listed for an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

While more than those in Saturday’s audience care about this issue, including many friends and acquaintances active in the Indianapolis HIV/AIDS arena who didn’t attend but commemorated the day in other ways, I’m also not surprised that many people likely have HIV/AIDS “fatigue,” and, even worse, assume that it’s not their problem any more.

That’s no reason to ignore this chronic illness that has claimed the lives of an estimated 30 million people worldwide and infiltrated the lives of more than 34 million people estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS globally today. That latter number includes about 10,000 men and women living with HIV/AIDS in Indiana, according to the latest stats from the Indiana State Department of Health. It should be humbling: Approximately 6,000 deaths due to HIV/AIDS complications have been reported in this state since 1981, according to the June 2012 edition of Spotlight on HIV/STD/Viral Hepatitis, Indiana Semi-Annual Report.

These figures may make it difficult to not feel helpless.

Yet the film’s story of early HIV/AIDS activists in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (commonly called ACT UP) includes footage of meetings, protests, and interviews with those who fought this plague in its darkest moments. For those of us who can’t remember or were too young to follow national news at the time, it’s worthwhile to see the film if only to witness the most tear-jerking moments of the movement, including a reading of names at an exhibit of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in October 1992. Later that day, protestors fought past police to dump the ashes of their loved ones on the White House lawn. As the film aptly explains, to these activists, the inaction of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the early years of HIV/AIDS likely led to the high death toll in the U.S. during their administrations. ACT UP members also protested the Federal Drug Administration’s methods of testing and approving HIV/AIDS medications and discriminatory federal regulations and policies, all caught on video by the activists and shown in this film.

The movie offers an important message as to not only why it’s necessary to be hopeful and fight this titular plague, but also why this is everyone’s problem.

There are life-saving drugs and more educational resources than ever thanks to global campaigns like Product Red, featuring uber-celebrities ranging from Bono to Javier Bardem to Ludacris; and local organizations like Indiana AIDS Fund, Step-Up Inc., Damien Center, and others right here in Indianapolis. Yet people continue to become infected because they believe they are invincible; that if they get the virus, they can just take the drugs without incident; or, even worse, do not know their HIV status because they’ve never been tested.

If you were not among the lucky few to catch this film at the IMA and want to learn more about the history of this important fight, you have another chance. The film’s director David France (pictured here) and one of the film’s featured activists, Peter Staley, will be on hand to answer questions at 8 p.m. tonight, Dec. 3, in a Google Hangout at You can tweet questions about ACT UP, social justice activism, and ending AIDS via Google+ or Twitter. (Include the hashtag #howtosurvive in your tweets.)

A few simple things everyone can do: get tested and know your status, practice safe behaviors regardless of your status, and encourage your friends and family to do the same. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but you just may save someone’s life.

As they say in the film: “Act Up. Fight Back. Fight AIDS.”

Photos by William Lucas Walker, Donna Binder, and Rick Reinhard for How to Survive a Plague, a Sundance Selects release.
Photo of David France by Karine Laval.

Note: Rebecca Berfanger has been involved in HIV/AIDS awareness since hearing Ryan White’s mother, Jeanne White, speak at an AIDS awareness event at Indy’s North Central High School in the early 1990s. Her alma mater continues to host AIDS awareness events, including a current exhibition of panels of the memorial quilt, which will be on display for Washington Township students at North Central through Dec. 21.