AIDS activist Peter Staley graced campus Monday night for a screening of Academy Award nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” in which he stars.

“How To Survive a Plague” is a compilation of archival footage from the ’80s and ’90s during the AIDS epidemic in the United States. It focuses on the efforts of activist groups ACT UP and TAG, which fought for increased research efforts to find a cure.

The documentary centers on ACT UP and TAG’s rise to political importance, but also explores the stigma of HIV and the social reality of homosexuality during those decades.

Students had the opportunity to receive an even more personal perspective of the documentary in a Q&A with Staley, whose brother and niece both graduated from Bowdoin.

Director David France, who had never made a film before, began the project four years ago. France covered the AIDS crisis as a freelance journalist and approached Staley and others about his idea for a documentary. Much of the footage came from the stars’ personal archives.

“Camcorders had just come out, so this was the first social movement that tried to film itself,” said Staley.

In total, there were more than 800 hours of footage, so France was able to rely on the archives to tell the story with limited present day footage. In Staley’s opinion, the original video allowed the audience to experience the raw emotion of the crisis.

“You see it the way we did, not knowing who was going to be alive at the end,” he said.

Staley spoke about his transition from Wall Street stockbroker to AIDS activist. After being diagnosed with HIV, Staley incidentally witnessed an ACT UP demonstration and attended the next meeting. 

“I had no prior experience as an activist, but I was always very political,” he said. “At the time there was no street activism that matched the anger that we felt.”

Although Staley received some support from a disability pension, all the activists were volunteers and could not make a career out of the years they dedicated to the fight against AIDS. Their struggle came strictly from their passion for the cause.

“It was a real struggle and a sacrifice. The transition into the real world was hard, especially for the younger members,” said Staley.

As for the next step in AIDS activism, Staley believes the primary concern today is the prevention of HIV transmission. Antiretroviral therapy is in itself a method of prevention.

“Treatment is prevention. It is almost impossible for me to give HIV to someone else if it is undetectable in my body,” he said.

However, he stressed that complacency is detrimental to the long-term goal of eliminating HIV. This is becoming a bigger issue amongst the younger generation of gay men.

“We got the treatment, but we never got the prevention right,” he said. “Condom code is breaking down, because people think they’re entering a trusting relationship. We need to refocus on that.”

Distribution of AIDS medication is also an issue that Staley is currently working on. He founded the website to make treatment information widely available, and he is working continuously toward making AIDS medications more available internationally.

“Drugs can be produced in India and sold for less than $100 in Africa,” said Staley.

Staley emphasized that the message of the documentary does not only apply to AIDS activism, but can be applied to other causes as well. He encouraged the students to change the world through causes they are passionate about.

“It doesn’t take huge numbers of people to create change,” he said. “There is a lot in the world to make you pessimistic. Things seem unsolvable. Just stick to it, do your homework, and take a long-term view of your goal.”

Many students said the film inspired them to do just that.

“What I take away from this is the focus and drive,” said Devin Hardy ’13. “I hope to find a way to channel this kind of energy into a cause, even if it’s not personal.”

Many students said that seeing Peter Staley in person drove the impact of the documentary home.

“Staley represents a manifestation of what the film portrayed and the success of their fight,” said Jeffrey Chung ’16.

While he views this generation’s activism as more diffuse and scattered than the street activism of his generation, Staley ended the session by advising students to have trust in themselves.
“Just do it,” Staley said. “Have faith that you’ll figure it out.”