By Jon Barrett
Updated January 29, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST
William Lucas Walker/IFC Films

“If you think you know the story of AIDS—and everybody thinks they know the story of AIDS—this movie will be a surprise.” That’s what David France, director of the documentary How to Survive a Plague, tells audiences before they see his film. And that’s what he’s telling as many Academy members as possible between now and February 24, when he’ll find out if How to Survive a Plague wins the Oscar for best documentary.

“It’s taken us a while after last year’s premiere [at Sundance] to get the word out that this isn’t the story you think it is,” France says. “It’s really like a medical thriller—and true on top of that.”

How to Survive a Plague tells the story of activists who—through their work with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and, later, the Treatment Action Group—saved millions of lives. They shut down New York City, stormed the FDA, and even tented former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms’ home with a gigantic condom. By doing so, they drew much-needed attention to the plight of people with AIDS and shattered standard practices around clinical drug trials—leading to the creation life-saving protease inhibitors.

“No drug has had such an impact on any virus — any virus,” France says.

But the film is about much more than science, and what sets it apart from so many AIDS-related docs is that it’s more a story of triumph than tragedy. These activists, who France says were presented as only “radical trouble makers” at the time, weren’t only fighting for their lives, they also were having the time of their lives.

“One of the people I interviewed [for the film] said to me, ‘We had a lot of fun when everybody was dying,’” France says. “And as awful as both of those halves of that sentence sound together, it was true. What was happening in AIDS activism then was not just a battle for survival but a battle for a certain high standard of life that was full of Technicolor things.”

As a difficult reminder that the fight against AIDS is far from over, one of the men featured in documentary, 44-year-old Spencer Cox, died in December after being HIV positive for close to 20 years. At the time of Cox’s death, France posted an outtake of an interview, where Cox discusses how protease inhibitors changed his life. “I don’t say it specifically in the film,” France explains, “but Spencer is the person who designed the drug trial that was used and adopted by industry in the testing of protease inhibitors…. It was a really substantial bio-statistical contribution that he made.

“All of these stories, these huge epic undertakings, nobody knew about them,” France adds. “We want make sure everybody does.”

How to Survive a Plague is available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon, download on iTunes, VOD on cable, and out on DVD on Feb. 26.

How to Survive a Plague

  • Movie
  • 110 minutes
  • David France