AIDS, Apathy and the Will to Survive
Everyone knows the gears of bureaucracy grind along with the efficiency of a mucked up stop watch. For every inch gained, a mountain of energy is expended. Be it civil rights legislation or a new freeway, border patrol or garbage disposal, nothing is achieved without hours and hours of political wrangling. Passing an eco-friendly bill may be one thing but when human lives are at stake, people don’t stop at pushing. They start fighting.
Once such brawl is the subject of David France’s Oscar nominated documentary, How To Survive a Plague. France, one of the original journalists of the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, tells the story of ACT UP, a coalition of infected, mostly homosexual citizens committed to finding treatment for the deadly disease. Plague doesn’t simply document the history of a decade’s worth of protests and policy. It tells the human stories of those involved in the struggle, fighting not only for survival but to ensure the health of those who come after.
Using 90% archival footage, Plague has an immediate visual impact. It’s one thing to read about the horrors of AIDS but to see the gaunt faces of those afflicted and hear the sobs of mourners as they fling the ashes of loved ones onto the White House lawn, is quite another. Apologies to Dallas Buyers Club, which takes place in the same era, but witnessing first hand a protest during a mass in St. Patrick’s cathedral holds far more weight than an emaciated Jared Leto.
In standard documentary style, the historical portions are intercut between testimonials of survivors of the political struggle. These modern day pieces break up the low-res, grainy look and gives context to the history. While I would have liked more old school footage with narration, it doesn’t detract and puts modern faces to the characters from thirty years ago. The soundtrack is also impressive, swelling and building at just the right moments
Red tape is often stained with the blood of those trapped in it. To the legislative warriors of ACT UP, the fight was for survival in face of oppression, prejudice and a country that didn’t care enough about the “gay disease”. By casting an unblinking eye at the very heart of the struggle, David France sheds light on the humanity behind the protests and puts a face on the unrest. While it’s hard for us imagine a civilized government denying anybody the care they need, How to Survive a Plague reminds us of how apathetic a ruling body can be and how powerful the voices of many can be in moving those mountains. One brutal inch at a time.
Score: 9 out of 10