With a catchy title suggesting a somewhat tongue in cheek horror film more so than a deadly serious documentary, there’s actually plenty scary about what’s contained in ‘How to Survive a Plague’…namely how those with AIDS used to be treated in the United States of America. Filled with pure emotion and terrifyingly real sense of desperation that had to have been felt at the time, this is a very good documentary that focuses in on the history and impact of the AIDS crisis in America and how a small group of activists were instrumental in getting medication into the world that saved countless lives. Mainly comprised of archival footage from numerous protests, group meetings, and other clips that had to have been previously unseen for the most part (with a little bit of talking head interviews thrown in for good measure), this isn’t your standard documentary, though it’s definitely a compelling watch. Obviously this is rather depressing subject matter, but it’s handled in a very solid way, which is important since this needs to work more than just in terms of making one cry. Tears are certainly a possibility for audience members who see this little flick when it opens on Friday, but its primary goal is to inspire people to act against social injustice. Director David France (a journalist who’s a first time filmmaker) is definitely successful in that way, leading you to connect the dots to current social issues if one is so inclined (or the Occupy Wall Street movement, for that matter), though if you don’t there won’t be anything lost on you in terms of how you feel about this movie. Regardless, this is a well made and important documentary to have in the world and I’m glad it’s getting a release.
The arc of the doc concerns the slow changes that took place in terms of how the government and society in general looked at the AIDS virus and those who were suffering and dying of the dreaded disease. Focusing mainly on the advocacy group ACT-UP (which stood for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a grassroots movement that began in the late 80′s (1987 to be precise, about a half decade into having AIDS being known as a deadly illness, though still not really a household term yet) in New York City. Fed up with how then Mayor Ed Koch was handling things, they began protesting (along with taking on the anti-condom rhetoric of the church, led in New York by Cardinal O’Connor), initially taking issue with how city hospitals often wouldn’t admit AIDS patients for treatment. From there, they move towards the federal government, namely the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, the agency that controls medication. The group is obviously made up of sufferers of the disease and they’re campaigning for new and more effective drugs to enter the marketplace. Obviously there’s initial resistance (shown clearly in a speech made on the Senate floor by notoriously conservative Senator Jesse Helms, who’s pretty blunt in his hatred for homosexuals and his lack of compassion for those afflicted with AIDS). Undeterred, the group presses on. In fact, each member of the group essentially had to become scientists and do their own research in order to be taken seriously, but eventually their work would pay off in a big way. Obviously AIDS is still a killer, but contracting it is no longer a death sentence in the United States. The men and women form ACT-UP who are shown in this documentary are who we have to thank for that.
David France had never made a film before this, and it’s one hell of an introduction. I don’t think that he’s looking to necessarily pursue this as a career, but if he wants to, he sure has a future as a documentarian. There’s a real sense of urgency in the movie, and France plays off that, which allows him to make a longer than usual documentary. He loses track of the pacing once or twice, but for the most part he’s got a very sure hand. By taking footage from the actual people on the ground for much of his imagery, it does come off as a collaborative effort, which makes sense considering what he’s depicting. I’d hardly call this a masterpiece, and I’ll admit to feeling the length towards the end, but by and large France is very effective in directing this flick. He’s a passionate filmmaker, someone who has a stake in the story he’s telling, and a director who knows how to bring home a point in a real and non-manipulative way.
‘How to Survive a Plague’ is certainly one of the best documentaries of the year so far and deserves to be considered for a Best Documentary Feature nomination by the Academy. It opens this weekend in limited release and those who are fans of nonfiction cinema would do well to check this one out. Obviously this is not a happy film and may be too much of a downer overall for some, but I urge you not to let that sort of thing deter you. This is an important documentary, one that should be seen, and I hope that if you see it playing in a theater near you, you check it out. You’ll be glad that you did…
-Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!