It can seem like ancient history to the millenial generation, but many remember the all-too-harrowing realities of the AIDS crisis and the subsequent social movement that arose out of the desperation and fear of imminent death faced by young, vibrant individuals with a fierce will to live. This movement has been inscribed in history by the new documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” from first-time filmmaker David France, an award-winning journalist who covered the crisis from a fly on the wall standpoint from the beginning. The film is skillfully crafted from hours of archival footage shot on the front lines — on the streets at protests, at ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) meetings, in the halls of international health conferences, on the lawn of the White House — and from eyewitness accounts of key members of the movement. The result is an emotionally searing, awe-inspiring and ultimately empowering film that should be shown as Social Justice 101. France’s film is the definitive ACT UP New York documentation that audiences in our Occupied world need to see.
The sheer scope of the continuing AIDS crisis is daunting to even consider, and France shapes his film around the story of the key figures of ACT UP New York from 1987 to 1996. This is not to argue that the crisis was contained only in these years, but to showcase the incredible accomplishments achieved during this time. The ideological through line that France highlights throughout the film is the way in which these activists — young professionals, artists, writers, etc.– educated, and thus empowered themselves about this disease that felled so many loved ones around them and left a target on all of their backs. When the FDA didn’t quickly approve drugs for treatment, they set out learning about these drugs, set up networks to provide them and wrote proposals for clinical trials, and when that wasn’t enough, showed up in droves to nail their demands to the door.
That the thinking behind their demands was well-informed and solid only bolstered their position, but it wasn’t enough for common sense and humanity to prevail; these activists put their bodies and voices on the line, pushing themselves into the hearts and minds of policy-makers and the American public alike. In his film, France manages to capture this spirit of united effort, motivation powered by the ferocious desire to live, and onscreen, it is almost overwhelming to behold. The sequence that precedes the title card alone is enough to move an audience member to tears, simply in awe of the energy, the rage and the demand to be heard, the demand to be seen and the demand to live. France effectively bolsters these energetic sequences with quieter moments of dying patients being lovingly cared for by their families and friends, juxtaposing the youth, energy, and vitality with these skeletal shadows, wasting away for no good reason at all.
The film is expertly paced and structured, and the storytelling is precise. France incorporates interviews with scientists who worked on the drugs, along with animated sequences to illustrate the technical aspects, so that the film is a science lesson as much as it is a history lesson and witness to this incredible movement. There are a few moments that will leave audience members devastated and reeling, but ultimately France’s expert hand creates a hopeful, inspiring message, a historical document of this time that is a testament to this movement that empowers citizens to be agents for their own social change. It’s a remarkable work that is emotional, educational, and most importantly, empowering. One of the best documentaries, and best films, of the year, it is required viewing for anyone with a desire for making their own world a better place, inspiring you to act up and fight back. [A]