The world probably doesn’t need another movie about the AIDS epidemic, but David France’s powerful new documentary more than justifies it’s own existence. How to Survive a Plague focuses on the actions of two separate coalitions in the late 80 and 90s ACT UP and TAG (Treatment For Action Group), whose passionate activism immeasurably helped to find the means to make the disease a treatable condition. Composed of some incredible archive footage, home movies, and a spattering of interviews with survivors, the documentary vividly brings back the events on the big screen showcasing how ignorance and fear can be toppled by the right people refusing to let an important issue disappear.
First, a little history: before 1996 things looked incredibly dire for anyone suffering from AIDS. The disease was so new that very little treatment was available and because the condition was stigmatized as being a problem exclusive to the gay community, many didn’t want to help or even listen to the plight. Miraculously, a drug cocktail was found combining a previously failed treatment AZT with a few others that rendered the condition sustainable, if not curable. It was such a sudden and shocking development that many of the survivors who continue to live today feel immense guilt over the fact that those they had known and loved perished just a few months earlier. Obviously years of work went into this discovery, but simply getting the government and medical establishment committed enough to do so was the result of the activist groups that France’s film follows.
His documentary covers the period from the height of the AIDS crisis to that remarkable discovery and works so effectively because those heavily involved at the time had the foresight to videotape much of what they did. The most memorable and effective sequences in the film come from shakey-cam homevideo coverage of rallies and painfully honest meetings between sufferers. Some of these very protesters were researchers, scientists, and chemists (a few who were HIV positive, a few who weren’t) who had been studying the fight against AIDS for years and somehow managed to get enough attention to become involved with boards in charge of overseeing AIDS research and brought invaluable information with them that wasn’t known to those in charge. On every level France presents key members in this movement as being groundswell players from the center of the issue who fought hard enough and were lucky enough to eventually take control and somehow beat the disease.
The film provides a remarkable sense of ground-level intimacy with the subject normally impossible for a film made this far after the actual events. The fact that the footage exists is somewhat amazing. The fact that France was able to collect it all and assemble it in such a clear, pointed, and effective way takes considerable skill. Throughout it all he has key surviving figures narrate and appear on camera as talking heads. By seeing their younger selves fight and listening to the stories years later, a relationship forms between them and the audience. When they break down while lost in memory it hurts. Obviously, that’s fairly standard documentary stuff at this point, yet whether it be the director’s line of questioning and editing or simply how personally tied the subjects are to this material, it seems to cut deeper than most films of it’s kind. It might not be fresh news to hear about this particular fight or issue, but seeing it played out directly and remembered so vividly by key members who were there hadn’t yet been done. That has an obviously powerful effect and in a way it’s surprising it took this long for this film to get made.
If it took this long, at least the right people finally made the documentary and perhaps they needed the time and perspective to even be willing to do it. France himself was one of the first and primary journalist covering this story at the time, so he has a relationship to the subjects that clearly pays off in his understanding of their story and the candid honesty he’s able to get from them as interview subjects. How to Survive a Plague might not exactly be a groundbreaking film that challenges the documentary form. However, the old tricks still work when told by filmmakers this dialed in with the material and who have the passion and understanding to drive it home in such a concise, meaningful way. It won’t be a fun night at the movies, but it is an inspiring one and a story that should have been told long before now. I guess the world did need one more movie about AIDs after all.