How To Survive A Plague (2012)

Documentary featuring Bill Bahlman, David Barr, Gregg Borodwitz, Jim Eigo, Garance Franke-Riuta, Mark Harrington, Larry Kramer, Iris Long, Ray Navarro, Bob Rafsky, Peter Staley, .

Director: David France
Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $99 Thousand

Public Square Films, Ninety Thousand Words, and Sundance Selects.

Written by: David France, Todd Woody Richman, Tyler H. Walk.

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1/2 (out of 5 stars)

The numbers are and were nothing short of shocking and demoralizing.  Arriving in a flood in the late 1970s and early 1980s, waves of gay men in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City began exhibiting skin lesions and Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare cancer common with folks of Mediterranean descent.  Efforts to treat the symptoms and sudden onset health issues common with those who had fallen ill, simply failed in every instance.  A sudden and concussive death rate escalated amongst homosexual men and doctors had no idea what was happening.

Dubbed “gay cancer”, homosexuals and gay communities began hearing that a rapidly climbing number of people in the gay community were becoming infected and dying off.  Worse yet, the conditions the men suffered from only accelerated along other life-threatening illnesses including pneumonia.  An epidemic was in full swing.

Then it got worse.  Discovering that the infection was passed through blood, doctors identified that unprotected anal sex among gay men was the contributing factor.  Then, IV drug users began to contract the disease.  A select number of blood transfusion patients became ill.  Heterosexual and bisexual women also fell sick and children became diagnosed.  A pandemic was upon us.  Since the disease was still largely viewed as emanating from a gay lifestyle, most in a position of action were slow to react or simply inert in setting aside discriminatory biases and trying to stop the increasing numbers of those dying from a new Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

How To Survive A Plague documents this in heartwrenching fashion and puts a spotlight on the efforts of activist organization ACT-UP, who formed in 1987 to raise awareness after millions of people had succumbed to the disease.  Formed by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Larry Kramer as a political action organization, 300 members began efforts to bring this tragedy to a national conversation.  Kramer wanted it to be a free-form group, without a specific leader, in the hopes that the organization would branch out and spring up in all different parts of the country.  Battling the Food and Drug Administration, who were shelving and abstaining from working on or approving drug formulas that may show signs of success against HIV and AIDS, ACT-UP gained attention, as they did in fighting misinformation written in magazines, newspapers, and on various television and radio programs.

As the organization moved forward, they seemingly documented everything and director David France unearthed more than 700 hours of footage, comprised of strategy meetings and peaceful and more aggressive protests.  He also dug deeper, acquiring home video footage of some of the ACT-UP foot soldiers who bravely fought hard, but ultimately succumbed to the disease.  France circles back time and again to New York PR executive Bob Rafsky, a dad who came out to his wife at the age of 40, received support from his wife and family, and died right after President Bill Clinton was elected to office in November 1992.

There are parallels which are obvious to today, especially when looking at the successes and stumbles made by both the Tea Party and Occupy movements.  ACT-UP nearly imploded due to the increasing number of deaths to the AIDS virus and a rip and pull between whether the efforts made by the organization were forceful enough or too muted to be effective.  One committee within ACT-UP split off from the group and formed the Treatment Action Group (TAG).  TAG became a 501(c)(3) non-profit and made huge inroads by advocating with scientists, doctors, and researchers on the creation, testing, and implementation of protease inhibitors, which laid the groundwork for turning the tide on those suffering from the disease or being mandated with a death sentence.

In documenting the initial 15-year span of escalating death and despair, the activism increases and progress is exponentially made in bringing respect, realization, and awareness to the mainstream media.  As this occurs, several TAG members were working around the clock with medical personnel and FDA regulators, authoring a through study, and doing whatever it would take to see Saquinavir, the first FDA-approved protease inhibitor, see the light of day for HIV patients in 1995.

All of this is incredible to watch unfold and David France clearly has a pulse on how he wishes to present the story of not only a few key players who survived and are living functional and productive lives today with the HIV virus, but also for the millions and millions of people who never got a chance to try and stay alive.

Inspiring, tragic, and ultimately a bittersweet and unshakable film, How To Survive A Plague simply moves you in a way few films truly can.  When those who made it through a horrific epidemic still become emotional at the memory of the lackadaisical and disinterested response from New York City Mayor Ed Koch and then-President Ronald Reagan, you cannot help but empathize with their feelings that their friends and loved ones fell victim to lost time.

In a movie of staggering information, empowering activism, and stunning truths, one sequence will be hard to forget.  At an AIDS quilt memorial in Washington, D.C., just outside the gates of the White House, some attendees brought the ashes of their deceased partners and loved ones and collectively decided to scatter those remains on the White House lawn.  The statement is a provocative and powerful one, beautiful and tragic in equal measure.

How To Survive A Plague runs the risk of becoming a a film that will likely be pigeonholed as something only for the LGBT community, but the film retains a voice and a proclamation that should be heard by everyone.  As much as some still wish to avoid conversations about HIV and AIDS, or feel it is something of a medical afterthought since the number of deaths have declined in the United States from millions in the 1980s and 1990s to slightly more than 583,000 in 2010, How To Survive A Plague punctuates its message with immediate power and heartfelt urgency.

The pandemic is still among us.  Lives are still being lost.  And be it not for the brave men and women who fought tirelessly to bring AIDS and HIV awareness to the public eye through essentially any means necessary, the number of those no longer with us would be even more incomprehensible.  Truly an exceptional film, worthy of awards consideration at the end of the year, I cannot recommend How To Survive A Plague enough.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • Politically charged, but also perfect in its timeliness with parallels to the Tea Party and Occupy movements, How To Survive A Plague speaks to the unwavering triumph of the human spirit, especially when empathy and sympathy guide your actions.
  • David France has crafted a tremendously moving and affecting film, worthy of Oscar consideration, and something that is not easy to shake.  We all have a connection to the LGBT community and to see the devastation that befell large numbers of that community and the inaction which surrounded those deaths, as well as those outside of the LGBT community at large, is simply disquieting.
  • Despite the loss and the appearance of the film being full of death and sadness, the film is inspiring, rousing, and for some, even galvanizing.  Speaks wider and far-reaching than one may think.
NO
  • If you are someone who cannot tolerate or accept homosexuals in society, in life, in your everyday existence in 2012, you are not going to watch this, no matter how good it is.
  • Those resistant to activism and in seeing some of the more outlandish shenanigans ACT-UP implemented to push their message, may cause some to recoil from their efforts and disengage from the film.
  • The film has the potential of only securing a limited audience.  This is not a film that you casually toss in and take a look at.