image (ACT UP advocate Peter Staley in protest) courtesy of:

I keep lamenting on the healthy state of documentaries out there at the moment, and if truth be told, so far, I haven’t seen one I didn’t like. How to Survive a Plague continues that successful thread, by contributing a story about the sheer tenacity in the face of mortality of a group of people, who most likely set the bar and inspired future fearsome acts of public protest and activism.

David France’s striking and provoking documentary follows key figures during the ascension, pinnacle and eventual administration of the HIV/AID’s epidemic circa 1980 through to the mid-late 90’s. It’s not easy to watch. In fact I turned up to the screening ten minutes late, and found myself crying within five. Admittedly I am an emotional viewer, but this was different. Knowing little about what had passed during this seminal moment in recent history, I guess for me it was waiting to see how they were going to tell the story of something still so recent and make it as powerful and relevant to viewers today as it was at the time. AID’s is still a taboo subject, more so then, than now, and how it was contracted was very much the cause celebre of the day; Homosexual’s were victimised, demonised and maligned – most shockingly – by some very powerful people in the US government; a toxic mixture of fear and ignorance. Lack or next to no access to medication or evidence of trials to find a cure is argued by many to have contributed to the steady and large amount of fatalities during that period of time. People watched as those closest to them and others around them got sick and died. Until a small group of young men and women, decided they didn’t have to.

ACT UP, one of the most prominent and leading activist groups at the time, trod the line between making a stand and notably and putting themselves in the line of fire. Many members of the group believed that trials should be conducted on those who had contracted the disease. They also believed their voices were missing from the panel of board members that sat down with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), making important decisions about an uncertain future. When the group made enough noise to be heard* and the founders were invited into talks, many ACT UP members were discouraged when a change was slow to come.

Structured chronologically (really the only way to gather and share all the pinnacle moments of that period), How to Survive a Plague alternates between archive footage and interviews and present talking heads. The film offers a well-balanced contribution of talking heads and argument from those who witnessed the furor from opposing sides. Watching the story unfold this way is heart-breaking but an engaging and poignant technique. We grow close to some key people in the film, we follow them as they start off as strong healthy young men and slip into gaunt and sickly figures during the course of the film. By the end, many would have passed away.

It’s a film that manages to convey as much of the grief, frustration and defiance during this volatile period that peaked less than 30 years ago. It’s a swan song, tribute and public service announcement about a disease that still many have to live with and are diagnosed with. The reminder that to fight for what one believes in is a basic human right regardless of sexual preference, gender, age or race. It’s a warning to adolescents, the sexual promiscuous and those who are perhaps as naive as the young leaders, some now middle-aged men, of ACT UP had been when they campaigned and protested for more drug trials without knowing the full implications of drug testing and research. It’s a plea and a reminder to corporate and government powers to invest time in and work alongside activists to reach the same goal. It’s a thank you to those alive and dead who have been affected by this sorry disease. It is (for want of a better word) the perfect display to the world, of how to survive a modern plague.

*I sound flippant but this is perhaps the most frustrating and painful journey I’ve seen where I didn’t feel relieved but exhausted and annoyed

To find out more or to follow the film as it continues to win awards go here:


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