Film takes hard look at uprising
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 12, 2012
“How to Survive a Plague,” David France’s documentary about the anti-AIDS activist movement that sprung up in New York in the 1980s, plays like the hard-edged bookend to last year’s “We Were Here,” which so movingly chronicled the ways in which San Francisco’s gay men took care of each other during the depths of the crisis.
Scrappy and unsubtle where “We Were Here” is elegant and nuanced, “How to Survive a Plague” isn’t nearly as formally beautiful as its predecessor.
But the film’s limitations turn out to be appropriate to its gritty, often confrontational subject matter: Rather than a record of unexpected beauty, “How to Survive a Plague” is as direct as the men and women who used rage and militancy to fight for a treatment for a disease that was decimating their community.
France’s film begins in 1987, six years into the AIDS epidemic, when the group Act Up formed in Greenwich Village and proceeded to march on New York’s City Hall in an effort to shame Mayor Ed Koch for his lack of response to what was then known as the “gay plague.” (The film opens with shattering images of emaciated AIDS patients hovering on the brink of death.)
Over the years, Act Up members would turn their energies to the National Institutes of Health and drug companies, who they maintained were foot-dragging in research and approval of anti-AIDS treatments. Along the way, the activists became every bit as knowledgable about medicine and labyrinthine bureaucracies as the savvy insiders they were routinely disgracing at conferences and in demonstrations brimming with creativity, desperation and righteous fury.
Eventually, the bureaucracy figured out the benefits of working with the grass-roots troublemakers, and together they found a three-drug cocktail that proved effective in stemming the symptoms of AIDS. But that wasn’t until millions had died while politicians dithered, demagogues fulminated and the movement splintered into camps of mutual mistrust and recrimination.
France toggles between news footage, home videos and present-day recollections to provide an invaluable chapter of social history that seems almost ancient. As a brief shot of the intact World Trade Center suggests, “How to Survive a Plague” captures a saddening, maddening era that seems like far too many lifetimes ago.
Contains adult themes and graphic images of illness and death.