Acting up a storm: Aids activist Peter Staley on How to Survive a Plague
Stand well back. You can feel the heat emanating from How to Survive a Plague. David France’s fiery, Oscar-nominated chronicle of the earliest years of the Aids epidemic follows the best and brightest activists from Act Up, a 1980s coalition that took on the Reagan administration, Bush the Elder and Big Pharma.
Many of the HIV-positive heroes depicted are no longer alive. But some of the film’s lively stars and commentators have survived the syndrome’s early ravages to bear witness. Among them is Peter Staley, founder of Act Up offshoots Treatment Action Group and AIDSmeds.com.
“This is an important film,” says Staley. “It allows my generation to finally memorialise what we had gone through. A lot of us had put it on an emotional shelf. We needed something like this us to force us to remember, to memorialise those we had lost and to admire what we had achieved. The second audience is the younger audience, especially young gays and lesbians, who didn’t know the history, who thought the drugs magically appeared. They had no idea how hated we were by the US government.”
The film uses more than 700 hours of archived footage from 31 credited videographers. Many of the snippets were found in Staley’s personal VHS collection. A gifted pianist who swapped majors to follow his older brother (a JP Morgan employee) into the world of high finance, Staley was a closeted Wall Street trader when the Aids epidemic hit New York.
“I actually kind of hated the job after I got into it,” he laughs. “I was a US bond trader when the Reagan debt was the biggest in the world. It was a wild time to be a bond trader: the bond rate was reported on the news more than the stock exchange. And it was like being in a high-school locker room. It was homophobic and racist and everybody was trying to out-testosterone the next guy. That was very oppressive.”
Everything changed in 1985, when Staley was diagnosed with Aids-related complex. As John Hurt’s voiceover warns us, “It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure”. Staley’s long-term prospects seemed grim, to say the least.
“It wasn’t good. I was caught off guard. It was late 1985, right after Rock Hudson had died and the country was in a panic. There were no drugs. They had only found the virus a year beforehand.”
Facing a sea of myths and misinformation, and with no treatment options, Staley became a pioneering citizen scientist. Working in conjunction with multinational pharmaceutical companies such as Merck, the Treatment Action Group paved the way for the protease inhibitors that emerged during the mid-1990s and transformed Aids into a manageable, survivable disease.