I was alive during the early days of the AIDS epidemic but was too young to really understand what was going on. It’s always shocking to see something like How To Survive A Plague, about events that took place while I was around but which seem so far from a world where gay people are increasingly being allowed to get married. Sure there are still problems but it’s incredible that just 20-30 years ago politicians were happy to allow millions around the world to die, just because they didn’t want to be seen to doing anything that might help gay people.
As the documentary continues it becomes increasingly clear that what happened with AIDS would not have happened with pretty much any other disease – unless it too was perceived to be mainly affecting the gays.
The movie, made up of archive footage and interviews with those involved, focusses on the groups that emerged in the gay community in response to the apathy of politicians about AIDS, and the foot dragging over approving medications. The first of these the documentary looks at is ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), a grass roots organisation that sprang up when gay people affected by HIV and AIDS decided that only way to improve the incredibly dire situation was to take the situation into their own hands.
Against all odds this marginalised community didn’t just stand up, they forced change.
While How To Survive A Plague could have purely been laudatory of these efforts, it doesn’t shy away from the more negative aspects, such as the in-fighting that broke out and the fact the sheer anger and desperation surrounding a disease that was cutting a swathe through the gay community, sometimes hindered as much as it helped. These ructions led to the formation of TAG (Treatment Action Group), a less radical organisation that preferred to try and work from the inside to affect change rather than ACT UP’s more direct, angrier civil disobedience.
It’s a remarkable story and the film is illuminating, inspiring and fascinating. While the fact gay people in the US stood up and took on the drug companies and politicians during AIDS crisis is common knowledge, how they actually did that is a less well known. How To Survive A Plague shows that it wasn’t just about shouting and demonstrations – those involved went deep into the science of what was happening so that they were as well informed as the scientist working on HIV drugs, and had the knowledge to actually improve the way medications were tested and brought to the market.
The film shows restraint in not going for obvious pathos, instead only using the devastating effects of the disease, from blindness to Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, to help enlighten the viewer on what it was like in the 80s and early 90s and how the various medications were supposed to help. In the end its restraint is perhaps even more moving and involving that deliberate heartstring tugging. It also works as a timely reminder of just how hideous homophobia can get if people don’t stand up and demand respect.
Overall Verdict: Whether you lived through early days of the AIDS crisis or not, How To Survive A Plague is a fascinating and sometimes shocking look at the groups in the US who decided they weren’t going to take it anymore and forced things to change.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac