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How to Survive a Plague is an important 2012 documentary by David France. The documentary follows the activism of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACTUP) and the Treatment Action Group (TAG), based in New York but working across the US, from the late 80s through to the 90s.
How to Survive a Plague manages, extraordinarily, to remain as unbiased as a documentary about such an emotive period in recent history can be. It considers the systemic failures of health provision to deal with the outbreak, but considers that these were a legacy of health authority policy before the 80s and the failure of said health authorities to envision something as devastating as HIV.
The documentary’s focus is human, so that we see the people who campaigned to make the government and FDA change policy to save lives, with plenty of first-person accounts to build a portrait of a people facing a plague. These people include Spencer Cox, an activist who helped develop protease inhibitors, which are key to current combination therapies. Iris Long also features: a retired research scientist who provided medical expertise. Mst of all we learn about Peter Staley, the former Wall Street type who switched to a life of activism, campaigning to reduce the cost of treatment.
ACTUP is shown favourably but honestly – with leaders of the organisation admitting to their own haste in insisting on early roll-out of AZT, and a candid approach to looking at the internal struggles that occurred within the organisation.
Kiss-ins, roadblocks and embroidered quilts are just some of the arresting tactics used by ACTUP. Their goal was always to elicit an emotional response and to highlight the crisis in treatment, rather than to destroy or damage.
ACTUP’s methods remind us of our political roots – and the documentary politely reminds us of the benefits of non-violent forms of protest. For instance, the famous Ashes Action was a protest in October 1992, where a group of activists threw the ashes of their dead comrades on the White House – highlighting the increasing death toll and the government’s role in failing to find a solution. Similar actions were repeated throughout the decade, effectively shaming successive governments into providing better provisions for those people living with HIV.
Mirroring these empathy-building campaigns, France relies on point-of-view shots and talking head-style interviews for the most part – offering personal testimonies that increase the intimacy of the film. Archive footage adds historical context, allowing later generations to see what the HIV struggle was like for groups such as ACTUP, at a time when social stigma and flimsy medical provision added to the physical challenges faced by those living with HIV.
In the light of movies such as The Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Normal Heart, How to Survive a Plague leaves behind the trappings of Hollywood to show us the reality of life with HIV before the medical advances of today.