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Did the AIDS Doc 'How to Survive a Plague' Force Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch to Have a Change of Heart About ACT UP?

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | feelingsoblahg.blogspot.com November 30, 2012 at 12:7PM

When David France was in the middle of production of his film "How to Survive a Plague" (Sundance '12 and an IFC Films/Sundance Selects release), which looks at the AIDS activist group ACT UP from its creation and most robust years through to challenges launched by the Treatment Action Group, he was made aware that former New York City mayor Ed Koch had caught wind of the film.
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Peter Staley in "How To Survive a Plague"

When David France was in the middle of production of his film "How to Survive a Plague" (Sundance '12 and an IFC Films/Sundance Selects release), which looks at the AIDS activist group ACT UP from its creation and most robust years through to challenges launched by the Treatment Action Group, he was made aware that former New York City mayor Ed Koch had caught wind of the film.

Koch is a particularly interesting character. He was mayor from 1978 to 1989, during the first several years of the AIDS epidemic, and he was the target of many New York AIDS activists' ire. In conversation with Indiewire, France repeated two chants he heard in the footage of ACT UP events that both held Koch accountable for the city's policies and questioned the bachelor's sexuality, which was in question throughout his political career: "C'mon Ed, honey -- spend the money," and "New York AIDS care is ineffectual. Thank Ed Koch, the heterosexual."

READ MORE: How to Make a Powerful AIDS Documentary: Talking to the Team Behind 'How To Survive a Plague'

Koch, it has been surprising for many to find out, has begun a post-politics career as a movie reviewer. He's a critic for the Yonkers Tribune and, for several months last year, he had a video review series. It is perhaps even more surprising to discover that Koch reviewed "Plague." But most surprising is what he said (or, rather, didn't say). 

Koch wrote his review without a single mention that he was indeed the Mayor of New York City during most of the events depicted in the film. After the review was published, the following passage was highlighted by many gay blogs:

The person who makes the greatest impact in the film because of his superb speaking ability is Peter Staley. In his New York Times review of this movie, Stephen Holden describes Staley as: "A former closeted Wall Street bond trader with H.I.V. who left his job and helped found the Treatment Action Group, an offshoot of Act Up. Self-taught in the science of AIDS, the group collaborated with pharmaceutical companies like Merck in the development of new drugs."
 
Others named in the Times' review as major leaders of Act Up, which began its activities in 1987, are Larry Kramer, Robert Rafsky and Ann Northrop, all of whom appear in the film. I don't know if these individuals were ever honored by the White House for what they did in fighting government and powerful corporations. If not, I urge President Obama to do so by presenting them and other leaders recognized by Act Up with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
 

That Larry Kramer, the man who called Koch out publicly so many times and was reduced to merely a name the pol-turned-critic read in a New York Times review of the film, should be getting an honor from the President was seen as an insult by someone commenting as Kramer on Staley's reposting of the Koch review.

READ MORE: Sundance Selects Buys "How To Survive A Plague"

It is worth pausing on Koch's description of ACT UP's actions, which comes above his commendation of Staley, Kramer and company in the review:

During that 15-year period, some exceptional people in the gay community mastered the knowledge and medical jargon enabling them to speak knowledgeably about the crisis with doctors and scientists. They were able to move government and the private sector, primarily drug companies, to search for effective treatments. When the drugs were available, they pressured the pharmaceutical companies to reduce retail prices. The first widely-available drug during that period, AZT, cost $10,000 annually per person. Through demonstrations and a willingness to be arrested, Act Up was able to get that cost reduced. The civil disobedience tactics of its members also forced the FDA to make the drugs available earlier than normal, hurrying the tests, which was not always good.
 
Koch's review is especially strange, because in the weeks before, he had both unsubscribed from a press list after being invited to see "Plague" and written a commentary explaining why Putin was right to arrest Pussy Riot by comparing the band's anti-religious action to ACT UP's own protest action in St. Patrick's Cathedral, which, he admits in his review, he continues to find revolting. 
 
France explained to Indiewire how he interprets Koch's review, saying, "I think he saw for the first time why the community responded the way it did with a sense of urgency and fury with the tools of ridicule, embarrassment and condemnation. I think he saw it for the first time, and I think he saw what it accomplished."
 

Indiewire reached out to Koch to elaborate on his feelings about the film this week, but he responded by saying he had nothing left to say beyond what is in his review.

Koch's review was not the only surprise. The politics of Andrew Sullivan, the neoliberal gay HIV-positive Daily Beast columnist, are widely understood to be far removed from the kinds of revolutionary actions ACT UP engaged in (in his review, Sullivan explains how his HIV diagnosis pushed him along his own life journey as a writer). He was in New York, though, at the time, and had this to say about ACT UP and the film in his review from the Provincetown Film Festival:

ACT-UP had its problems. It would alienate people unnecessarily; it would polarize; it would disrupt religious services; it could be a parody of p.c. claptrap (some meetings were interminable victim-fests), and tiresomely accuse almost anyone not in ACT-UP of being a murderer (yes, I was busted more than once). And yet all of this was a function of rage and will that was and is inextricable from defeating the plague.

"How To Survive A Plague" is the first documentary that I have seen that does justice to this story of a civil rights movement rising from the ashes of our dead.

So in the end, Sullivan shows respect for the organization's work. 

This weekend, in recognition of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the "Plague" team will be screening the film in more than 100 locations across the country. "Plague" also will be shown at a number of U.S. embassies around the world (especially, following the suggestion of a fan of the film who works in the Albanian embassy, in Eastern Europe) as a part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's initiative to include LGBT rights in human-rights efforts around the world.

A special Google+ Hangout On Air will host a conversation about AIDS activism with France, Staley and singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo Dec. 3 at 8 pm EST.

This article is related to: How to Survive a Plague, Queer Cinema, Activism, Documentary