Subjects don’t come much heavier than David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague, which is a sturdy and comprehensive look at a very serious and inspiring issue. Not merely a film about the activist efforts of the late 80s-mid 90s, against the aids virus but a look at the latent homophobia of many at the time. How to Survive a Plague is mostly made up of archive footage and presents a frenzied and tough fight against not only the virus but also the people in power to do something about it.
Some will watch this film with the delightful benefit of hindsight and thus a few may view the occasional action by Act Up and TAG as misjudged – a matter the film addresses. Yet the fact is that at the time, these two factions had to fight to be heard. Though not always seeing eye-to-eye and running into many walls on their journey to justice, they made a difference. This story may look at what went wrong but it pleasurably shows what went right and that is luckily the bigger portion. This film shows how people like Bob Rafsky and Iris Long made a difference to the treatment crisis of a savage virus. Many may not realise just how aggressive aids was back in this period and David France’s deeply personal film (dedicated to his partner who died as result of the virus in 1992) gets the severity and poignancy spot on.
In fact there are so many facts put into the film that some may get lost amidst the mountain of material. How to Survive a Plague features so many people who fought for justice that it can hardly cover them all, as a result some stories remain less certain than others. Yet the film tackles a subject like this so adeptly that it is easy to see why the film received an Academy award nomination. David France’s passionate film admirably steps back from the most well known (celebrity cases) to present real people suffering without support, is an education in many respects. The film, through Stuart Bogie’s music and the thematic celebration of life, is not all gravitas and there are certain scenes that enliven the near narrative-like structure of the film. Still this is an interesting coverage of a ferocious time for homosexual and bisexual people and some of the scenes of aggressive prejudice feel ridiculous, especially considering that this was only 20 years ago!
This is an important documentary feature for those wanting to know more about this era and is worthwhile viewing for everyone else. It is not fun and easy but really nor should it be, this film forgoes a sexual politics and religious debate to present actual effects on real people that survived and sadly didn’t make it. It ends with hope that if, back then, these people could make a difference, hopefully this film will inspire others to do so for other issues today. For a rare occasion too, archive footage – from a look at the St. Patrick’s Cathedral demonstration in 1989 to a rally outside George Bush Sr.’s front door – gives us a full grasp of what happened and when.
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