How To Survive A Plague – Review

Michael Prescott
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In 1987, worldwide AIDS related deaths reached 500,000 people. This documentary looks at those who – in the late eighties and early nineties – decided to speak out and fight back against the corporations and officials who they believed were not doing nearly enough to fight these ballooning statistics.

The film opens with distressing images of suffering and bad health as a hard-hitting reminder of the devastating virus that many were forced to confront back then, and that this documentary retrospectively deals with now. The opening captions read that “with no drugs to treat the disease, AIDS is nearly 100% fatal”, further contextualising the need for action in every respect.

By 1989, the number of AIDS related deaths had more than doubled, surpassing 1.2 million. Early on in the documentary, we are treated to footage of a protest march – one of many to follow in the film, with undoubtedly many more occurring in the real life narrative – at City Hall. Those who believe in the cause chant “healthcare is a right!” evoking memories of Ken Loach’s The Spirit of 45 from earlier in the year, examining the British system of healthcare and the attempted (and potentially impending) changes to it.

Such exploration also links back to an alternative documentary released earlier this year, provoking yet another mention of the astounding Fire in the Blood, which this film shares many ties with. That socio-political documentary examined the lack of access to AIDS drugs in African nations because of the involvement of Western pharmaceutical companies. As it happens, it picks up the action from the mid-90s, pretty much exactly where How to Survive a Plague tails off, making for a perfectly depressing (non-date-night) double-bill.

A similar documentary that How to Survive a Plague recalls is We Were Here, the interview-led piece chronicling the difficult and traumatic personal tales of those who were affected, either personally or via friends, families and partners. Indeed, Plague could be said to be a mix of the forthright activism of the latter with hints of the personal tragedy of the former, with each having its own particular merits as they are all impressive films in some form.

As for AIDS, just a year later in 1990, the total deaths were up to over 1.7m. People were angry and ready to respond. However, quite amazingly, what really transmits beyond the lens is a feeling of joviality. There are many stereotypes out there associated with any and every group, gay people included. Some of them are entirely justified whilst others are senseless and baseless, driven only by fear, hatred and intolerance.

It’s a shame that this playfulness and ability to react with so much spirit to something so scary, all whilst being castigated for it by those with power, is not highlighted and acknowledged by these people who are so quick and keen to paint gay people and/or AIDS sufferers as wrong and immoral in some form. It is, however, a credit to the documentary – and particularly those captured in the archive footage within it – that they display such extraordinary strength and courage in these testing times.

The group known as Act Up are followed throughout as they are shown briefly to encounter the most clueless and bigoted personalities. These instances include talk-show interviews, politicians spouting hateful nonsense in the senate, and the unwelcome interference of the Catholic Church. What this group of people did to fight the perceived (now acknowledged as actual) injustice was to become self-taught on medical knowledge and the political process as much as they could, in order to have reasoned and solid arguments in pushing for drugs more rapidly.

Whilst they did so, the Catholic Church was concentrating on spreading the word of “immoral” and “ineffective” condoms – a particularly insensitive debate to enter, considering the nature of it. Dangerous senator Jesse Helms – one of the most prominent figures of hate involved – proclaims at one point that, to paraphrase, ‘they can have their free speech as long as they don’t offend anybody’. Because the best free speech is closely controlled and moderated speech.

Fortunately the response to his tiresome drivel-spouting was a witty protest that covered his house in a giant condom, proclaiming “Helms is more dangerous than the AIDS virus”. Similarly these activists snuck into a cathedral to ensure that their voices would be heard under God’s roof, promising that the problem would not simply disappear. One of the most startling forms of remonstration is an Asian trip where they accuse a company of doing too-little-too-slowly, with one of the protesters shouting “you’re killing me!” at somebody standing in front of him.

Regardless of blame, they certainly were dying. The worldwide number of deaths had hit a staggering 4.7m in 1993. One of the most extraordinary achievements of the documentary is the access to incredible footage – inside the cathedral as mentioned, on protests and rallies and marches, inside congress, at meetings and group gatherings, at conventions, as well as television archival footage – allowing this to become an intimate insight into the state of mind of those dissatisfied and dying.

The ever-escalating number hit 6.2m in 1994, and 8.2 million in 1995. These numbers continuously fed to the viewer throughout remind us once again to see this in context, as one of the most appalling catastrophes and epidemics in modern history. Where great credit should go is towards all of those, the documentary-makers, those activists with AIDS, those gay activists without AIDS, and those simply feeling an affinity with the cause, in delivering this great message on a grand scale. Thanks to them, and people like them, the number saved is an estimated 6 million.

This recent disaster of Holocaust proportions is all at once a reminder of nature’s continuing presence and power, and the remarkable human resistance to it, as well as being a wonderful example of human connection and resilience. But, as mentioned, followed up with Fire in the Blood, it hammers home the message that the war on drugs – medical, prescribed, company-controlled drugs – is a long way from over. This is why 2 million continue to die each year from this frightening yet remediable virus, simply because they cannot afford the help that’s out there to fight this on-going plague.

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott

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