Movie Review: “How to Survive a Plague”

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, December 7, 2012 at 5:28 pm.

(Photo: Public Square Films)

Summary: A documentary on the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the activists who fought for healthcare from a government who ignored them.

Review: There are several documentaries on HIV/AIDS. But How to Survive a Plague is not just another film on the epidemic, the movie centers around the ferocious warriors who sacrificed their lives so HIV/AIDS would be the “manageable” disease it is today. Directed by David France, the film focuses on ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), two legendary activist groups that were exhausted by seeing their friends die with no acknowledgement from the government. President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush famously ignored the HIV/AIDS crisis because it was stereotypically limited to white gay men of New York and San Francisco (and the island of Haiti, a fact many people forget).

Without being exploitative, David France showed the gruesome results of the early stages of AIDS. At the time, an AIDS diagnosis meant nearly a 100 percent chance of death. Thankfully, these brilliant young people documented their struggles — sadly knowing a video camera would be the only way to preserve their history.  The majority of the film is vintage footage over several years, detailing each step backward and forward of the crisis.

When we hear about the millions of people who died of HIV/AIDS, the stats often become a number. But How to Survive a Plague attached a face — not to the disease — but to the courage it took to stand up to a mysterious illness and a lazy government. Viewers got to know icons like Bob Rafsky, Ray Navarro, Larry Kramer, Mark Harrington, Peter Staley and countless others. Without these unsung heroes, who knows where the HIV/AIDS epidemic would be today.

One riveting moment was when activists scattered the ashes of their loved one on the White House lawn — an unforgettable visual in documentary cinema.

Through all of the film’s tragedies, there are bright moments. These were activists who laughed through their tears and possessed the creative tools to make their voices heard. Jesse Helms, a Republican State Senator from North Carolina who was wildly homophobic, famously had a condom adorned on his house. President Bill Clinton got a hot lash from Bob Rafsky, a man who was living with the disease and refused to be silenced. Plus, there are endless moments from witty, edgy activists who didn’t just protest, they performed with rainbow smoke, orchestrated elaborate demonstrations and delivered compelling speeches.

How to Survive a Plague is a brilliant blueprint on how to spark a revolution. The activists who were highlighted in this film (and the nameless, faceless people who perished without getting a chance to be in front of the camera) are American heroes to us all — gay, straight, black, white, male or female, they saved us and sacrificed their lives to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

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