How to Survive a Plague | Movie review
A new documentary about the fight against AIDS doubles as a lesson in effective activism.
“A decent society does not put people out to pasture and let them die because they’ve done a human thing.” So says activist Bob Rafsky in David France’s moving and comprehensive new documentary about the fight against AIDS. Whereas last year’s We Were Here explored the outbreak of the disease in microcosm, through candid interviews with those who lived to talk about it, How to Survive a Plague offers a macro perspective. Its chief subject is ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an advocacy group formed in 1987 in Greenwich Village to protest the government’s less-than-speedy response to the epidemic. Amassing more than a decade’s archival footage, France chronicles the organization’s campaigns against apathetic politicians as well as its ongoing efforts to get affordable drug treatments on the market.
Though talking-head testimonials occasionally supplement the fly-on-the-wall material, the film unfolds in an electrifying present tense; as with Brett Morgen’s more overtly stylized Chicago 10, we’re essentially bearing firsthand witness to a political movement. Never is the movie more emotionally resonant than when lingering with ACT UP’s passionate figureheads, whose stake in the fight is nothing less than their own lives. The group eventually splits into opposing factions, with one side devoted to getting faster FDA approval of medication, while the other—dubbed the Treatment Action Group, or TAG—values effectiveness of the drugs over swiftness of availability. Of course, both lobbies teem with informed proponents. More than just a time capsule, Plague offers an instructive lesson for Occupy-era rabble-rousers: Only when coupled with a knowledge base will your sound and fury signify anything.