Film Review: Powerful ‘How to Survive a Plague’ Documents Historic Fight For Life
CHICAGO – There have been several strong documentaries about the AIDS crisis in America, including last year’s breathtakingly good “We Were Here,” but “How to Survive a Plague” has a unique angle in that it’s not as much about the unimaginable death of a community in a time of crisis but how that community came together to save itself. As people lay dying, those in power needed to be woken up to do something through protest and “Plague” chronicles that movement. It’s a powerful piece of work, one of the best documentaries of the year.
It’s hard to imagine being a part of the homosexual community in a major city like New York in the ’80s. Not only were loved ones dying but their life partners were being evicted because their names weren’t on the lease. People were being left in emergency rooms for days by hospital crews who had no idea how to treat them or were merely too homophobic to care. And important politicians like President Bush, Mayor Koch, and others simply weren’t giving the issue enough weight. The people immediately impacted by the crisis had to come up with their own research, their own drug cocktails, and put pressure on the FDA to treat the issue with more urgency than a pending nasal spray. The AIDS activist community fought for their own drugs to survive.
|Read Brian Tallerico’s full review of “How to Survive a Plague” in our reviews section.|
“How to Survive a Plague” is made up of a lot of protest footage at City Hall, at drug conference meetings, in a cathedral with Ed Koch and Cardinal O’Connor (renamed Cardinal O’Condom), etc. When a man stands up in a church and yells at O’Connor, “You’re killing us,” the power of that moment is palpable. It’s about the inspiring power of watching a community refuse to go away, refuse to give up, and refuse to die. How do you survive a plague? You fight.
The greatest accomplishment on a filmmaking level for “How to Survive a Plague” is how expertly it is structured by director David France. This is not mere interview or anecdote documentary as the film primarily consists of archival footage of the ’80s and ’90s with protest, interview, and personal recordings that put viewers right on the front line. And a lot of the protest footage is cut together with ignorant comments by some powerful people like Koch or purely evil ones by scum like Jesse Helms. The film puts us right in the moment of the height of the crisis better than any documentary ever has.
How to Survive a Plague
Photo credit: IFC Films