In New York in the 80s and 90s a global epidemic was ravaging the LGBT community. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was surging through the United States but with the disease being linked to homosexuality, a politically divisive topic, effective treatments were hard to find and research funding was not at a level that many found acceptable. Out of this need for information, medication, and support grew two campaigning groups, ACT UP and later TAG, who fought to get the voice of AIDs victims heard and have drugs tested faster and released to the public so that the death toll could be curbed as quickly as possible.
Using over 700 hours of archive amateur footage and newsreel director David France has carved out a deeply personal film about a time when so many felt abandoned by their country and citizens rallied together to save themselves from a slow death sentence. With the film dedicated to France’s partner who died in 1992 from AIDS-related pneumonia this is a film filled with passion and sadness. With the absence of modern expert analysis and the prevalence of archive video this documentary throws you deep into the period it is covering. We are not simply looking at news reports of protest rallies but are down on the group inside the rally, we are in the meetings when information is shared, tactics discussed, and tempers are frayed.
We are at the hospital bedside and we are at the funeral.
One of the most affecting aspects of the film is seeing the same people over the course of over a decade and watching as they gradually waste away. The saying goes that “a single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic” and How to Survive a Plague does show us the statistics as the years pass but we are never allowed to ignore the tragedy inherent to the individual deaths. This is an incredibly intimate film, at times uncomfortably so, and shows how blind prejudice and simple inaction can be as decimating at any war.
Despite the important subject matter and overbearing sense of injustice and tragedy the film does have its lighter moments. The people involved are real human beings captured uncensored and as such the humour inherent in human nature seeps through. The film even allows for an incredibly powerful uplifting moment towards the end which did admittedly bring with it a bittersweet conclusion to the film.
How to Survive a Plague is an intimate and personal documentary about a global tragedy that will give you hope in the strength of the combined human spirit just as much as it crushes your belief in humanity.
How to Survive a Plague is on limited release from tomorrow.