Review: How to Survive a Plague
How to Survive A Plague (HTSAP) is a documentary fueled by passion and anger. The film opens right in the middle of the AIDS epidemic in the US at the late ’70s/early ’80s period and centres around the efforts of the ACT UP and TAG activist groups At the time, being diagnosed was almost a 100% certainty of death for patients. Those at the centre of this terror express their fears and sense of distraught pain at seeing friends and loved ones dying off around them, wondering who will be next. This is shown in by archive video footage, which makes up the bulk of the film. As well as rooting the narrative in the not-so-distant past, the use of archive footage puts you at the heart of a movement pressing for change. Combating a government agency (FDA) lethargic in its approach to trialling new drugs, a government itself that isn’t putting anywhere near enough finding into AIDS research and a catholic church worsening the infection rate by decrying the use of condoms, AIDS protestors take to the streets. The direct action demos against the agencies and drug companies are electrifying, partly due to the deft editing of the archive crowd footage (you feel as if you were there) and partly because of the mounting fury and anger of those involved. With only occasional present-day talking heads popping up, the feeling of people taking charge of their own lives and refusing to be silenced at a key moment in history is effectively conveyed, and cannot help but stir the spirit. As mentioned, whilst the film does a fine job of pointing out the flaws in US Government policy, this is first and foremost a film about the activists themselves. The film shows how they were forced to become their own scientists, publicists and debaters. It is impossible to come away without a sense of respect for all they have achieved. Yet the film is no saintly picture of a cohesive movement. As the mounting death toll and pressure of fighting seemingly impossible odds mounts there are real ructions and eventually, spits within the movement. One memorable clip shows figurehead Larry Kramer blasting fellow activists for their behaviour. Never has a point been made with more weight or authority. And, like Kramer, it’s the individuals who stick out. As the on screen graphics separate the films chapters by counting the total dead, it’s possible to be baffled by the unfathomable horror of the millions dead. It’s too large, too incomprehensible. So individuals like Bob Rafsky help top bring it all home. His strident oration damning George H W Bush for his inaction over AIDS shakes with a cold fury and is imbued with a razor sharp intelligence. His passing is a reminder to the viewer of the human cost of AIDS. These were vibrant, intelligent people, taken from the world before their time. The film itself is neither leaden or heavy handed. It pulses with the energy of activism and empowerment and has a scathing, bear-claw like swipe of anger at those in power (from Ed Koch to Bill Clinton) too ineffective or indifferent fight a modern epidemic. When you see the ash of the deceased breaching the gates and finding the White House lawn, you can see the determination and spirit that let a movements voices be heard. They would not be silenced. Fittingly, the film ends with a call to action; the fight against AIDS is ongoing. If more films like HTSAP get made and distributed they can only add to those joining the cause. How To Survive A Plague is out on DVD now.