When it comes to illness it is easy to feel helpless. We surrender ourselves to health care professionals with the trust and faith they have the power and the will to help us get better.
Imagine then how depressingly terrifying it must be to contract a mysterious and terminal illness that the medical community is reluctant to fully engage because those affected are primarily members of a marginalized segment of the population.
This was the plight of those suffering from AIDS in the 1980s. The halting new documentary “How to Survive a Plague” examines how coalitions of AIDS patients, mostly homosexual males, took on the government, drug companies, and the entire medical-industrial complex to gain better treatment and increase awareness of their disease.
Told mainly through archival footage from the time, first-time director David France does an excellent job of constructing a compelling and informative narrative out of years of recorded video.
The movie focuses primarily on the members of two groups based out of the New York City homosexual community, ACT UP and TAG, the latter of which formed as an offshoot of the former.
With their lives literally on the line and with friends dying every day, these men (and a few women) took it upon themselves to become educated not only about the disease itself but about treatment methods and the bureaucratic apparatus that surrounds drug creation and approval.
The fight is a difficult one mostly because there is no clear villain aside from indifference, incompetence, and inefficiency.
We also see there were plenty of internal battles to be waged because there were a few occasions where infighting threatened to derail the entire movement. And then there is the simple frustration of the failings of science because so many of the drugs the groups strived so hard to get approved by the FDA turned out to be ineffective against the disease.
France makes a wise decision to stick with content from the time and limit present-day interviews only for the purposes of providing context and, at the end of the film, short reflections.
Today AIDS is a manageable condition, thanks in large part to the efforts of ACT UP and similar groups, but at the time most of those involved had no way of knowing if they would live to see their efforts succeed. This gives the movie an almost heartbreaking immediacy.
The lesson of “How to Survive a Plague” is that persistence pays off and those seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome by those who go to great lengths to ensure they will not become victims. Not to mention there is strength in numbers.
This is a moving documentary, as hopeful as it is tragic. This is the type of movie that leaves you walking away wondering if placed in the same situation if you would have the courage to respond the same way. Let’s just pray we never have to find out.
“How to Survive a Plague” is unrated. It features strong language and adult themes.