How To Survive A Plague (15)

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The ViewLondon Review

Review byMatthew Turner08/11/2013

Five out of Five stars
Running time: 109 mins

Well-made and featuring an astonishing amount of on-the-scene archive footage, this is a powerfully emotional and hugely inspirational documentary that demands to be seen.

What's it all about?
Directed by David France, How To Survive A Plague is a documentary chronicling the fight against AIDS in the 1980s, when there was almost no treatment available in the US and victims were essentially left to die (bodies were piled up in bin-liners, victims were forcibly turned away from hospitals etc). On top of that, the government's strict policies on drug administration meant that experimental drugs and drug testing were either forbidden or restricted to procedures that would take too long to become widely available.

The film focuses on two coalition groups within the activist movement, ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group) - itself a splinter group from ACT UP – and chronicles both their programme of peaceful protests (e.g. throwing a condom over conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh's house, staging a 'die-in' at a cathedral and, most movingly of all, scattering the ashes of their loved ones on the White House lawn) and their direct action against the drug companies themselves. To that end, many members of the groups (such as former Wall St trader Peter Staley) were forced to become scientists themselves, reading up on experimental treatments in other countries, obtaining them on the black market and testing them themselves whilst putting pressure on US scientists and government officials to get those treatments sanctioned in the US.

The Good
Journalist-turned-filmmaker France has assembled an astonishing amount of on-the-scene archive footage, to the point that it seems like every single protest meeting was recorded on video (perhaps not surprising, given the affiliation of the movement to artistic communities in Greenwich Village, where video was becoming an important artistic tool); at one point, he even has the luxury of cutting between two video recordings of the same meeting.

The film is told through a combination of archive footage, present-day talking head interviews with survivors and archive interviews from the 1980s, frequently with the same people (there's a certain tension involved in just how many of the participants are still with us and you breathe a sigh of relief each time one appears). Needless to say, their first-hand accounts are deeply moving and there are a number of incredible moments, not least in the visible deterioration over time of many of the activists in the archive footage, such as Bob Rafsky.

The Great
Like many of the best documentaries, How To Survive A Plague inspires righteous anger at the outright homophobia and discrimination displayed by senators, religious figures etc. at the time. However, the film also carries a hugely inspirational message about the power of education to literally save lives.

Worth seeing?
How to Survive a Plague is a riveting, inspirational and powerfully emotional documentary whose subjects deserve to be enshrined in US history as true heroes. Unmissable.

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Content updated: 22/07/2018 15:51

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