[Review] – How To Survive A Plague

10 Oct

Title: How to Survive a Plague
Year: 2012
Director: David France
Writers: David France, Todd Woody Richman and Tyler H. Walk
Starring: Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Iris Long, Bob Rafsky
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 109 min
IMDb Rating: 5.8
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Metacritic: 90

So far in 2012 there have been a few documentaries that I’ve really, really liked. Seven of the Top 50 films I’ve seen to date this year are documentaries and an eighth one, First Position, is at #52. How to Survive a Plague, the directorial debut from investigative reporter David France, definitely joins that list of great documentaries this year has seen. This film, which premiered at Sundance, is a damn powerful example of filmmaking, a thoroughly moving statement about a truly heroic example of activism on a very serious topic.

That topic, of course, is AIDS. How to Survive a Plague details the stories of two coalitions, the ACT UP and TAG (which stands for Treatment Action Group), who were the two entities responsible for making the AIDS diagnosis stop being perceived as a death sentence and become a condition that could be managed. What’s amazing is that the activists in the middle of it all had no real scientific training and yet they moved forward with unflinching conviction, getting deep into the pharmaceutical industry and pinpointing new drugs that could be helpful to their cause and, more amazingly, getting those drugs to go from their trial stages to the bodies of patients who needed them in record time.

Mr. France got these really amazing pieces of footage from archives that had never been seen before, dating back to the 80’s and 90’s and he uses them not only to construct a fascinating narrative but to get us to understand the issue and the people at hand really well, making us feel as though we where right there. We see the controversy that surrounded the actions of these people, how they persevered in meetings with people that stood in their way, how heartbreaking the moments when they failed were and how amazing it felt when they got something done, when a breakthrough came along that would make for a better future. We feel all of those emotions as we get to know these truly heroic individuals.

I haven’t seen all that many documentaries about AIDS, though I’m sure there are more than a few out there, but I really have trouble thinking about another one that could be able to capture this period in history as well as How to Survive a Plague does. It does justice to these people and these organizations, and it does so not with schmaltzy decór but rather with engrossing details about what people, especially the gay community, managed to do for this cause, about the campaigns they started, how they never caved in how effective they were in the end. Take away what this film is specifically about and it still remains a truly epic detailing of how to strategize in the best of ways any kind of activism.

It’s essential, really, that’s one word that describes this movie to me, it illuminates a vital piece of our past while managing to stand as an irresistible call to action for the future. It shows a great deal of bravery from the people it focusses on, this community at its most dire time of crisis and how incredible its response in the face of such harsh times was; these were activists that were really fighting for their lives and the voice of this film is just passionate as the voice of the people in it.

AIDS was a disease that was killing people in the thousands and that the President at the time, Ronald Reagan, did a piss-poor job handling, mostly because he didn’t handle it at all, he ignored it, refused to even say its name in public. That’s why the people in this film started this non-violent civil disobedience, because its government was neglecting them and they (rightfully) wanted them to shame them for it. You hear how seriously stupid by disinformation people back then were and you get outraged and admire all the more these people who had the balls to stand up for themselves and the bigger cause.

Peter Staley, one of the people we focus on here, was a bond trader on Wall Street and he was HIV positive, in the film he recalls how the guy who taught him all about his business said that people with AIDS deserved to die for taking it up the ass. Mr. Staley, after his diagnosis, came out of the closet and started doing something about his condition, co-founding TAG, challenging people into listening him and eventually changing his future and the one of many like him. There’s a tremendous amount of suffering in Mr. Staley’s story, that much is true, it’s filled with a sadness I can’t even begin to really comprehend, but the fact that the man is alive today speaking to us is one of those really great feelings this film leaves you with.

I’m not gay, I don’t live in the U.S. (most of the events this film depicts transpire in Manhattan) and, most of all, I wasn’t even alive when most of what this film portrays happened. I’m guessing the people that will be really affected by this film will be the ones that do meet those criteria, the ones that survived the plague; still, even if you, like me, are as removed as you can be from the topic at hand I can promise you that Mr. France’s film will be tremendously powerful. It will show you a piece of the past that you really need to know about, it will illuminate you on the subject in the best of ways, it will provide painful context to it all while ultimately just being downright inspiring thanks to the people it showcases.

How to Survive a Plague is, simply put, one of the most important documentaries I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s one that takes on a hugely important subject in the history of the U.S. and the world as a whole and tackles it with a passionate voice, one that details the truly inspiring heroism of a community that in face of crisis knew how to stand together for themselves no matter how many bigger people tried to turn the other way and not look them directly. It’s a truly powerful and moving film about an epidemic that left scars around; a true must-watch.

Grade: A-


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