Monday, March 11, 2013

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE: A Q&A with Activist Peter Staley

By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager, BMFI

AIDS activist Peter Staley never thought he’d be going to the Oscars. Yet this year he accompanied the director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague on Hollywood’s big night. Featured in the film, Peter has been a key AIDS activist since shortly after being diagnosed with AIDS-related complex in 1985. He led ACT UP’s 1989 campaign to force lowering the price of AZT, the first FDA-approved drug treatment for HIV, and became the Founding Director of the Treatment Action Group (TAG), whose successful lobbying for radical changes in how the government's AIDS research efforts were managed led to the creation of the Office of AIDS Research. President Clinton appointed Peter to the National Task Force on AIDS Drug Development in 1994 and he has served on the board of amfAR, the foundation for AIDS research. 

In advance of Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s screening of How to Survive a Plague on Wednesday, March 13, Peter answered some questions via phone about the film and how its success has impacted his activism.

We’re so glad that you can come to BMFI’s screening.

It’s great to come home. I’ve been in New York since 1983, but I grew up in Berwyn and I went to Conestoga High School, class of ‘79.

That’s great. How to Survive a Plague was recently nominated for an Academy Award. What was it like attending the Oscars?
It was amazing, kind of dreamlike. As a gay kid, I grew up watching the Oscars from as early as I can remember and I never missed one. I never dreamed in a million years that I’d end up attending them. It was a dream come true—fun and exhilarating. Regardless of the outcome for the film, I had a blast.

Peter Staley (far right) with David France, Howard Gertler, and Joy Tomchin on the Oscars' red carpet.
Has the film’s success changed your activism strategy? How?

It has. I was largely inactive when the film came out. I’d just finished ten years of work on a website that I created for people with HIV [] and I was looking for the next chapter of my life. Since this film came out at Sundance fifteen months ago, I’ve been traveling around with it doing Q&As and it’s gotten my juices going again. I’ve been working with current activists on some projects to put this recent celebrity to good use.

Can you tell us a little bit about your current projects?

One of them is a problem that a lot of people are frustrated with: the lack of engagement in AIDS activism from the community that started it all, the gay community. As the movie portrays, it was the gay community’s strongest moment. We rose up and fought back and got the treatments that are keeping people alive today. But after the treatments came out, we kind of turned our backs on the cause. Among gay men, specifically younger gay men of color—the fastest growing group of HIV positive Americans—infections are on the rise again. 55,000 Americans become infected with HIV every year. We’ve got a lot of work to do in this country. It’s not the death sentence it used to be, so people think the job is over, but it’s not. Getting the gay community reengaged in fighting HIV/AIDS is something I want to work on now.

An archival photograph of Peter Staley being arrested during a protest.
How did you get involved in the film?

Director David France came to me when he first got the idea, almost four years ago now. He told me his vision for the film and asked if I had some VHS tapes from those years. I had a whole bookshelf of them, mostly old news broadcasts. He cleared out my collection and went off and made the film. After that, I didn’t have much involvement myself except to come in for the contemporary interviews like the other featured activists did.

I remain stunned by the beautiful work of art he created and how he captured that extraordinary moment in time, especially considering that he’s a first-time filmmaker. I find the film to be intensely honest.

Thank you, Peter.
Learn about these brave AIDS activists' efforts to get life-saving medications developed and available for the patients who needed them and ask Peter Staley your own questions at Bryn Mawr Film Institute's screening of How to Survive a Plague and Q&A on Wednesday, March 13 at 7:30 pm.

Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!

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