Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How to Survive a Plague

Directed by David France.
2012. Not Rated, 120 minutes.
Bob Rafsky
Larry Kramer
Jim Eigo
Iris Long
David Barr
Mark Harrington
Bill Bahlman
Gregg Bordowitz
Dr. Ellen Cooper
Franke-Ruta Garance

In the late 1970s, AIDS became a known disease and it seemed to only affect gay men. By the early 1980s it had become an epidemic and a death sentence for the stricken. Hundreds of thousands of people were dying around the world on an annual basis. The development of effective medication was slow. How to Survive a Plague is the story of a group of activists, collectively known as Act Up, who fought to expedite the process.

The people of Act Up diligently filmed seemingly everything they did. As a result we get a documentary that tells its story mostly through actual footage, relying very little on interviews and less prone to the possible misrememberings of the people involved. There is not only video documentation of their rather public protests and run-ins with public figures, but of many of the group’s private meetings. This is where the movie’s real power lies. Though it is present, this isn't another documentary built upon a bunch of seniors reminiscing on the good ol’ days.

In this case, the ol’ days were actually pretty bad. The situation was bleak and spreading as the world slowly came to realize anyone could become infected with AIDS. Act Up formed out of a mass sense of urgency. That urgency is poignantly conveyed by the use of all that footage I mentioned. We see on the faces, and hear in the voices of the people involved, real emotion, real passion for the work they’re doing. It’s hard for the viewer to not root for them. Also helping in that regard is an ominous ticker that marks the passing of each year by displaying how many people had died of the disease to that point.

During the course of the movie, we’re introduced to a number of dynamic personalities. Some of these people have succumbed to the disease and are no longer with us. Nonetheless, we can understand why these folks became leaders of a movement. We see how much their lives, and in some cases, their deaths impacted the community and their cause.

Perhaps best of all, we learn that Act Up and its leadership weren't always right and they most certainly were not always operating in harmony. We see rifts form within the organization, even to the point some very prominent members of the group break off and do their own thing. Among those that remain, we witness more in-fighting as their best efforts seem to be going for naught and they try to come up with new strategies. It eventually comes to light that the sheer panic that drove them in the early days led them to push for things that may not have been all that beneficial.

The movie ends in 1996 after a major medical breakthrough. Despite growing up in New York City, where the group was based, much of this happened on the very edges of my periphery awareness. This is particularly true of the stuff from the 80s as I was very young and had only the knowledge of AIDS that most regular junior high and high school kids of that era possessed, which isn't much. I heard about AIDS protests in the city, but not much more than that they happened. From this outsider’s point of view, it seems two topics are wholly missing from Plague. This first is how basketball legend Magic Johnson contracting HIV affected their cause, if at all. Magic’s announcement marked a tectonic shift in the way many people though about the disease. He himself, become a crusader for finding a cure and joined a presidential committee. Did any of this matter to Act Up? Did it help them, hurt them, or neither?

The other topic is the country’s, even the world’s, changing outlook on and attitude toward homosexuals and homosexuality. From the time AIDS was discovered until ’96, I’d like to think the world became a bit more enlightened and/or tolerant. Again I’m left wondering how the people of Act Up felt about this. Granted, the main point of the movie is their battle for effective medication, but those things could easily fit into the narrative.

Despite the absence of these issues, Plague is still an enthralling documentary. Its story is very well told. It is also a reminder that even though AIDS isn't the immediate nailing up of the coffin it once was, it’s still out there and plenty of people continue to die from it. That said, this showcases a remarkable group of human beings who helped make the world a better place.


  1. Fitting that I should be reading this now, since we just learned about this same topic in one of my classes yesterday. It's a very intense and controversial area of study, but if there's anything I have learned from those classes it's that AIDS is not caused by being a gay man (as if that wasn't already clear enough) and it most definitely was not caused by a French Canadian flight attendant being infected by monkeys and then accidentally spreading the diseases with several people after having sex with them. This sounds like it will go more into the activist's side of things, which should be an interesting perspective.

    Incidentally, if you're interested in this kind of thing, I think it's worth recommending the film I saw in that same class, Zero Patience (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108649/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1). It's a really weird and surreal Canadian musical dark comedy that makes fun of misconceptions about AIDS and the whole idea of "Patient Zero" (whose status as the alleged "first AIDS victim" is carefully deconstructed) through a really bizarre narrative and some mind-boggling imagery that you might have to see to believe (and you still might not even then). It is a very different sort of film compared to How to Survive a Plague, but it does get its messages across if in some... very unusual ways.

    1. Those things you mention are fairly common knowledge now, but back then all of this was brand new to everyone. Even gay men thought it was a gay men's disease. It wasn't until women and straight men began to get infected in large numbers and extensive research proved otherwise that anyone could be affected by this. How to Survive a Plague definitely deals with activism. I do plan on seeing Zero Patience, too. That sounds very interesting.

  2. I saw this film a few years ago in the theaters not knowing what to expect as it was intense. Especially for the fact that you saw these people really going out there to fight for their lives. I was more shocked at the aftermath of the film in how these activists looked back then when they were fighting to live and survive to how they looked many years later. I really hope a cure will come for those with AIDS but we know that is going to take much longer now.