One of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries, How To Survive a Plague, should be annual required viewing during LGBTQ History Month (that’s October here in the States if you’re wondering). It’s an expertly crafted film that not only looks back at a tumultuous time in that community’s history, but how it, against seemingly insurmountable odds, changed the world.
Directed by David France, How To Survive a Plague is constructed largely (and by a wide margin) of archival footage shot by participants in ACT UP, a social activist group composed of gay and straight members who were lawyers, accountants, scientists, artists, students, or simply concerned citizens. They shared a common goal, to get treatment for the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was sweeping the globe in the ’90s and that particularly ravaged the gay community. They were outraged by the government’s and pharmaceutical companies’ feet-dragging over the release of HIV/AIDS medication, which was due in no small part to the marginalized nature of that community. Through years of protests and not a little in-fighting (a separate group, TAG, broke off due to disagreements over how the movement should proceed), these activists sped up the release of HIV/AIDS treatment drugs that have saved millions of lives to date.
The real gift of How To Survive a Plague is the way in which the filmmakers, particularly France and editors Todd Woody Richman and Tyler H. Walk allow the archival footage to tell the story itself. This is not to say there are no talking heads, but rather that they use them sparingly and late in the game. This allows us viewers to form our own opinions of the events and, at the same time, makes the participants’ reflections on their past experiences all the more moving because we have seen a grand sweep of events and emotions play out before they get a chance to speak about them. Throughout the documentary, the filmmakers keep a yearly running tally of HIV/AIDS related deaths that rapidly climbs into the millions. It adds both gravity to the film and a mounting sense of doom and hopelessness, which is what most of these activists felt towards the end of this particular phase of the movement.
How To Survive a Plague is also an interesting look into the inner workings of liberal/socially progressive activist groups that operate on the fringes of society and that are often up against organizational, political, and economic might. There are concerns over who’s at the table and who gets to speak (racial, gender, and class diversity) and the most appropriate means of engaging their opponents (keep waving the protest signs or don suits and ties). So much of these arguments lead to the TAG break off. It’s interesting to see how the nature of the epidemic demanded immediate response regardless of racial, gender, or class diversity. People infected with HIV/AIDS, many of whom were active in ACT UP, needed those drugs now. Political correctness could follow saved lives.
There are difficult scenes to watch as friends lose friends to the disease and subsequently reflect on their own mortality. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching scene features survivors sprinkling the ashes of their loved ones on the White House lawn in protest over the government’s refusal to speed up the release of these medicines. There are also inspiring scenes of non-violent protest, especially when ACT UP members take on the Catholic Church for its stance on condom use and, of course, homosexuality. How To Survive a Plague is no doubt an important film for our time, but it is also one of those “for future generations” films that both members of the LGBTQ community and their friends should re-visit to be reminded of the vision and courage of those who have come before them. At the same time, LGBTQ opponents would do well to watch and see how the community they so frequently marginalized stood up to their predecessors and saved millions of lives in the process.
How To Survive a Plague (120 mins.) is available on DVD and streaming on Netflix.