How to Survive a Plague
Release date: September 21, 2012
Director: David France
Written by: David France, Todd Woody Richman, Tyler H. Walk
How to Survive a Plague opens up with a harrowing look at the AIDS crisis that establishes just the right set-up for everything to come. Utilizing an enormous amount of archival footage, David France focuses his documentary on chronicling the experiences of activists in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group), starting in the late eighties, in their journey to getting people with AIDS (or PWA) a chance at a normal life.
The documentation of the grassroots movement in attempting to save lives is as close-up as you can get. The archival footage, composed of things like news reports and video recordings from smack in the center of activist meetings, is complemented nicely by a few interviews with long-standing advocates of the movement. You’ll find familiar faces in LGBT history like film historian Vito Russo and writer Larry Kramer, in addition to dozens of others who contributed to getting things done.
While they are the primary focus, How to Survive a Plague doesn’t limit itself to LGBT activists, but also brings in a nice scope of the allies who contributed to the project. In an age where most self-proclaimed allies are teen girls who want a gay best friend, it’s refreshing to see middle-aged chemists and the like offering their advice on medication and possible scientific advances to treat AIDS. While France keeps things focused on the activists, it does paint the opposition in an almost entirely negative light, be it from political leaders, the FDA, the church, or even the media. The last of these also proved to be an enormous help, however, as the doc reveals how media exposure had its positives and negatives.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t a few segments that don’t contribute much else but pushing the viewer to get caught up in emotion or sentimentality, especially a few pointless family videos. It’s an unfortunate flaw, and one that makes the documentary a little longer than necessary, but not one that drastically takes away from the series of events being shown. Viewers may also find some of the demands presented by activists in the documentary to be somewhat unreasonable, and yet it’s natural to think about these things in hindsight. Being part of a community that was being decimated by HIV/AIDS while being taken advantage of and forced into a situation where it is impossible to survive makes one do some crazy things. If that involves putting a giant condom on a homophobic senators house, so be it.
What How to Survive a Plague does is present a look at many of the important events that led to AIDS becoming a major issue in the US. Without these activists, there would be an unimaginable number of people who would still have to live in complete shame and fear because of their illness. It may not be much, but this documentary is at the very least a tribute to those who helped make the lives of people with AIDS easier and more dignified.