Haunting and uncomfortably real, How to Survive a Plague uses the passion for its subject and the aggressive passion of it subjects to tell a powerful story of hope. With candid footage that shows people suffering from AIDS on the precipice of American authorities being forced to take notice, the film journeys through the struggles of a nation adverse to change and the affects of turning a blind eye to illness because of prejudice. What makes How to Survive a Plague ascend simply talking about an epidemic, that remains deeply misunderstood and under-reported, is how it shows with vigor that ignorance is not without the confident opposition of people courageous enough to stand up.
Midway through How to Survive a Plague, we see some of our main subjects asked pointedly, “Do you think you will die?” With virtually no hesitation each person says, “Yes.” Central to this story are people who refuse to allow indifference or platitudes to defer what they feel are rightful crusades to reverse a fatal disease. Throughout the story, the group of activists, known as ACT UP, are shown protesting, yelling out, confronting politicians, and ultimately refusing to have conversations that don’t end in “change.” Their passion drives the film and their one-tracked mindedness helped to at least stymie a problem that was about destroy more and more lives.
How to Survive a Plague’s understated approach, allowing the footage from the past to unfold in real time while looking back only infrequently with modestly produced interviews, serves to expose venom inside the repressed and dying subjects. The triumph of this film is how its subjects tell the story from within. It’s difficult to remember another movie that manages to make such a stern point without imposing the obvious stamp of its makers on the audience. Instead, How to Survive a Plague feels like a history lesson told to us through the lens of the people who actually experienced that history. However, there’s obviously no mistaking what side director David France is on and one drawback of the film is that no alternative viewpoints are ever explored. Though, as Bill Clinton says in the film, when “lives are at stake” this isn’t about justifying, it’s about honestly helping those who suffer.
How to Survive a Plague coyly disguises itself as a typical historical doc, using talking heads and well-researched footage to document an important time. However, what the film really is is a mirror on a society still too caught up self-righteous motivations and consumerist absorption to take notice when something as bad as a plague occurs right in front of our eyes. Like the needle point proposed by the equally powerful (though not as hot button) The Central Park Five, this film can be seen as a representation of how slow our culture is to react to serious concerns. This notion can be applied to gun control, climate change, disease, and any number of other issues that are far easier to ignore than fight. At the core of both excellent nonfiction pieces are people who had nothing left to lose and weren’t scared to get hit back. [A]