‘How to Survive a Plague’: Taking responsibility

September 19, 2012

Both gripping and wrenching – not to mention thrilling – David France’s documentary, “How to Survive a Plague,” opening Friday (9/21/12) in limited release, recalls a slice of recent history that is in danger of being lost.

There is more than a generation that’s been born since the start of the AIDS epidemic in 1981 – many of whom have no idea the struggle that AIDS activists went through to get the government and the drug companies to take their life-and-death struggle with the urgency that the patients were feeling it. France’s film examines a specific strand of that narrative: the efforts by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and its offshoot, TAG (Treatment Action Group), to get the FDA and the National Institutes of Health to speed up the process by which drugs were tested and approved for the treatment of HIV and AIDS.

The story France tells is compelling, focusing on a small but self-educated group of civilians who put the government’s feet to the fire through protests and direct political action. Starting with the FDA (and signs that said, in essence, “You’re killing us”) and moving into global political protest and action, ACT UP was essential in forcing the various drug conglomerates to think differently, to act more speedily and to move these treatments into the public arena to help save lives.

Covering the decade from 1986-97, when the so-called “cocktail” was discovered to halt the progress of HIV, France’s film brings together archival footage from TV – but, more important, from the collections of the activists themselves, who had begn to document their work with the newly affordable home-video camcorder. France sorted through thousands of hours of VHS and other formats of footage to come up with what is a stunning document of a period.

The cameras are there for each meeting, each action, each protest and speech. He chronicles the impact on some government scientists, who became advocates for the group’s cause. He also reminds us of then-President George H.W. Bush in his 1992 election debates against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, telling AIDS sufferers to avoid the kind of behavior that leads to AIDS. France revisits the small-minded, sometimes hateful attitudes of the period (though some of that hasn’t changed), even as he looks at the way a small group of committed people were able to move the rest of the world to their cause.

The film finds its heroes early on: activists like Mark Harrington, Peter Staley, Larry Kramer and Bob Rafsky. As the struggle goes on through the 1980s and into the 1990s, some of them fall by the wayside, dead from the disease they were trying to find treatment for. By the end, you’re rooting for the rest to survive and holding your breath against the moment when one of them will finally succumb.

Raising important questions – both about the way the AIDS crisis was handled and the way citizens can seize the reins and guide the national dialogue – “How to Survive a Plague” is both startling history and completely contemporary. Telling anyone to see an AIDS documentary is a tough sell – but this one will raise your hopes, even as it brings you to tears.

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