How to Survive a Plague: Seminal AIDS Documentary

Timely, relevant, and informative, the new documentary, “How to Survive a Plague” is a must-see work that addresses AIDS, one of the biggest, most lethal problems of the past three decades.

The non-fictional work has been playing in various film festivals, deservedly winning awards at the 2012 Sundance Film Fest (where it world-premiered in January) and other forums, both gay and non-gay, and events dedicated to features as well as documentaries. IFC Selects will distribute this emotionally stirring, inspirational documentary in late September.

The tale begins in the dark days of 1987, when American society was six years into the AIDS epidemic, a crisis that was still largely being ignored by government officials and health organizations.

In terms of public consciousness, AIDS gained awareness in 1985, when movie star Rock Hudson died of AIDS. But perhaps a more significant event was the sudden emergence of the activist group ACT UP in Greenwich Village, largely made up of HIV-positive participants who refused to die without a fight.

Emboldened by the powers of activism, resistance and rebellion, they took on the challenges that public officials had ignored, raising awareness of the disease through a series of dramatic collective protests.  Both by necessity and by choice, the activists became recognized experts in virology, biology, and pharmaceutical chemistry. Among their remarkable  efforts were seizing the reins of federal policy from the FDA and NIH, force the AIDS conversation into the 1992 presidential election, and guide the way to the discovery of effective AIDS drugs that stopped an HIV diagnosis from being a death sentence—and allowed them to live long lives.

“How to Survive” is directed by first-time filmmaker and award-winning journalist David France, who has been covering the AIDS crisis for 30 years, first for the gay press and then for the New York Times and Newsweek, among others.

The footage is simply remarkable, culled from a vast amount of archival footage. The testimonials and other evidence are first-hand and unmediated, due to the fact that they were shot by the protestors themselves; over 30 videographers are enlisted in the credits.  As a result, almost every detail, interview, and image in this docu assumes amazing immediacy and both visual and thematic urgency.

End result is a unique documentary, which is both an historical chronicle of a plague, and also an intimate and visceral recreation of the period through the very personal stories of some of ACT UP’s leading participants.

As informative and relevant as “How to Survive” is thematically, it is also compelling visually and emotionally. France knows that a feature becomes more effective if structurally it is more than a series of talking heads.  To that extent, he has constructed a mesmerizing tale, which boast a rather shapely narrative, with a beginning, middle, and an end.

The evolution and impact of ACT UP could serve as an instructive handbook for other activists who want to make social or political change in other fields.

Like other great documentaries, “How to Survive”is invested with personal feelings and motivations.  France reports that Downtown New York City, where he lived, was a grotesque and up-close battlefield: ”My upstairs neighbor fell, and the guys on the fourth floor, and the one across the hall. My lover took ill. The cancer darkened his skin but it was the pneumonia that claimed him in 1992, four years before new medications changed the course of the plague.

Despite the grim subject and the gloom statistics, “How to Survive” is inspirational, capturing both the joy and terror of those days—it is not devoid of humorous anecdotes and even satirical moments (which is not to say that it trivializes the seriousness of its subject).  In this meticulously researched and skillfully assembled docu, we get smaller and the bigger day-by-day battles that finally made AIDS survival possible.