Review: ‘How to Survive a Plague’
One of the best documentaries released last year was We Were Here, a devastatingly sad series of accounts from people who survived the early days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. When the disease first emerged, the establishment was content to ignore it, since it seemed to only affect social undesirables like gay men or drug addicts. We Were Here showed the stories of those undesirables in heartbreakingly intimate detail. Had the government been more proactive at this crucial stage, hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved.
The fact that the government eventually did act at all, funding medical research and such, can be attributed to those who demanded that it do so. How to Survive a Plague is about the people who stepped up. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to We Were Here, tackling the same subject, only from a drastically different perspective. While the former film was about succumbing to death, this one is about clinging stubbornly to life. The name of the game is right in the title: survival.
The doc follows the history of two of the major activist groups that agitated for AIDS treatment during the 80′s and 90′s. ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in 1987 by a group that included author/playwright Larry Kramer, while TAG (the Treatment Action Group) later splintered off from them in 1992. Both organizations worked tirelessly to fight AIDS on every conceivable level. This was a personal battle for them, as many members were HIV-positive, and had found themselves essentially left to die by society.
This was more than just a political action – it was a way of forming a support network as more and more people contracted the disease and died off. Members used every resource they had to hunt down possible medical options. Drugs from other countries, not approved by the FDA, would be smuggled in. The groups used every form of protest to draw attention to their plight, from shutting down a post office to covering the house of Senator Jesse Helms with a giant condom. They were the ones who coined the catchphrase “silence = death,” and spread it as much as they could through America. In a time when the mainstream was intent on ignoring the epidemic, these people would not let it go. To do so was surrender.
Watching How to Survive a Plague often induces the incredible rush that comes from seeing the power of the people at work. There’s a thrill in hundreds or thousands of protestors joining forces to force institutions to do the right thing. And yet these organizations weren’t angels, and the movie doesn’t sugar-coat some of their less-than-flattering actions, like pushing for “cures” that turned out to be dangerous, or the internal fighting that led members to leave ACT UP to form TAG. It’s a tangled, complex history, demonstrated by the dozens of characters whose stories we follow over the course of decades.
How to Survive a Plague doesn’t induce the emotional highs of We Were Here, but it’s a rousing counterpart to that film. At times, the history lesson aspects of the doc threaten to undercut its personal strength, and it feels like one or few of the characters could have been cut without negatively affecting the overall piece, but those are quibbles. It’s a very good look at how, through time and energy, society can be changed for the better through sheer force of will. We aren’t nearly at the goal when it comes to AIDS, but that goes for most social issues. The point is that, even if things aren’t optimal, everyone who cares keeps pushing towards progress. This film is a testament to that.