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Review: How to Survive a Plague (2012)

How to Survive a Plague (2012)

Directed by: David France

Premise: A documentary about the early efforts of groups like ACT UP that campaigned for AIDS research in the 1980s and 90s.

What Works: How to Survive a Plague is an extraordinary piece of documentary filmmaking. Part of what is extraordinary about this film is the way it is made. The picture consists almost exclusively of archival footage, some from news organizations but mostly from amateur photographers documenting the events. The fact that the filmmakers have collected footage from over a quarter-century ago, a lot of it apparently shot on low-fi department store video cameras, and assembled it into something watchable and compelling is an exceptional filmmaking accomplishment. How to Survive a Plague‘s primary value is as a historical document. It captures a movement in time that risks being forgotten; the legacy of the AIDS crisis has not become a part of our shared sense of national history even though this was among the defining issues of the 1980s and 90s. This film presents and preserves this historical moment and it’s a fascinating look into issues and strategies that have resonance in the present day. ACT UP and groups like it were the prototype for the contemporary gay rights movement and the AIDS crisis galvanized and organized that community for the civil rights struggles that would take place over the next quarter century. How to Survive a Plague is also instructive as a look into the way a grass roots movement functions and achieves its goals. Although the picture features sequences of mass demonstrations (whose efficacy is sometimes suspect), what the film also shows is the way in which the community and its allies and advocates mobilized to defend themselves, researching the disease and its treatment and educating themselves and each other. They also set up treatment centers and other community resources while lobbying influential figures in the medical field to stand with them. This multifaceted portrayal of the struggle against AIDS makes this film a very complete assessment of a community fighting for its survival. 

What Doesn’t: How to Survive a Plague was made by filmmakers who are clearly sympathetic with groups like ACT UP. That is understandable given the stakes of the AIDS crisis as depicted in this film and the inefficient and apparently arbitrary actions of the Food and Drug Administration but the film lacks testimony from those who could defend the FDA’s actions. Had the picture shed light on what was going on inside the FDA at this time, this might have added another dimension to the issue and further enhanced the credibility of the film’s argument. Also, How to Survive a Plague does not question the efficacy of ACT UP’s direct action demonstrations. This film has numerous sequences of protests staged at government buildings and pharmaceutical companies. These sequences contain some extraordinary footage but it isn’t always clear that the most disruptive actions got the results that these activists wanted. This becomes particularly apparent during the section that documents ACT UP’s protests against the Roman Catholic Church for campaigning against condom use. In an event staged at a New York Cathedral, ACT UP members call Cardinal Dolan a murderer and disrupt a mass. The Church never changed its position and the film does not indicate whether ACT UP was able to sway public opinion or if such protests just deepened cultural wedges. The outrage and self-righteousness that permeates How to Survive a Plague is understandable given the circumstances in the film but like most activists, the passion gets weary after a while, no matter what the stakes of the issue.

DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, and trailer.

Bottom Line: How to Survive a Plague is an important documentary film. It’s a valuable historical document that manages to distill a long and complicated issue into a discernable narrative. It’s also an exceptionally well made film that balances expository information with the human struggles of AIDS.

Episode: #468 (December 8, 2013)