Director: David France,
Watched on: Cable On-demand,
How To Survive A Plague sounds like the title of a post-apocalyptic adventure picture. For the gay and bisexual men who lived through the AIDS epidemic, a private apocalypse is exactly what faced each and every one of them throughout the long, frightening days that made up much of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. This film, a ragged and startling account of what amounted to a collective cry for help and recognition by a population ignored, abandoned and left to die, is indeed a must-see for any group or subculture who realizes their lives depend on their ability to summon the courage to fight back.
Director David France focuses on the primary AIDS activist group ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and an offshoot, called TAG (the Treatment Action Group) that splintered acrimoniously from ACT UP in order to pursue what some in the movement felt was a misguided, even conciliatory side mission: a concerted push for drug testing to combat AIDS, which meant working with drug companies, the CDC, even politicians, akin in some activist’s eyes to sleeping with the enemy. Using a trove of rough home video, news clips, and later interviews, the events of the film charge off the screen, grab you by the collar, and force you to imagine what you would do if your life and the lives of nearly everyone you loved was at stake, and the people with the power to help wrote you off.
How To Survive a Plague begins in the middle of the firestorm, with little set-up, the shaky ‘80s video rattling your sense of what a documentary should look like these days. There is nothing soothing or polished or comfortable to look at in this film. It is filled with anger and heartbreak, shouts and rage, and the mordant wit of smart, talented young men willing to lay anything on the line, to stage any bit of outrageous protest theater, in order to get noticed. It soon becomes clear that the film’s director David France does not intend this journey to be easy, nor is he simply piling up his narrative with ranting nostalgia. He carefully assembles a scrapbook of desperation, setback, and hope, culminating in a final reel that delivers the most bittersweet moment you’ll see in a movie this year.