I still have a knot in my heart hours after watching How to Survive a Plague. I’m not quite sure whether to smile or cry or to continue trying to transport myself back in time so that I too could make a difference in the treatment options during the AIDS epidemic. To be frank, I cannot even begin to fathom how to encapsulate the raw power and emotion of this movie in a review. Quite simply, you must go see this movie. Just stomach your discomforts and your preconceived notions about the AIDS epidemic, sit back and don’t relax (because you don’t want to miss a second of this film).
How to Survive a Plague transports the viewer back in time to follow two inspiring AIDS activist groups, ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), as they struggle to convert AIDS from a plague to a manageable condition. The most striking thing about their struggle, however, is that despite having no real scientific training, these activists were able to infiltrate pharmaceutical companies and speed up testing periods for promising drugs, delivering potential life-saving treatments to patients in record time. Eventually, some of these activists are able to witness the success of AIDS protease inhibitors, a vital part of successful AIDS treatment.
The true power of this movie does not lie in its storyline, but in its depictions of real people directly affected by the epidemic who, rather than suffer idly, stood up for what the treatment they believed they deserved — and won. Filmmaker David France allows us to explore this politically heated time while pondering what it must have been like to be at those ACT UP meetings, to participate in silent kiss-ins and to watch as your friends and fellow activists were snatched away in the prime of their youth.
As we follow the stories of several specific activists and become attached to them, they become our friends; we feel their pain. France makes a wise decision leaving these clips almost uncut, not only transporting the audience back in time, but letting raw emotions and people speak for themselves. The film is a poignant and provocative display of the tenacity of these activists, who were willing to speak out in a time when hospitals were turning AIDS positive patients away simply because they were homosexual. At times, it is hard to stomach that the events of this film happened less than two decades ago, especially when you witness congressmen take the floor and declare homosexuality a dangerous behavior, or when you watch activist after activist reiterate that they have accepted that AIDS will kill them. You find yourself smiling/crying when some (but not all) of them outlive even their own accepted notions.
This film is a beautiful tribute to those who fought and lost their lives in the fight for proper AIDS treatment when it seemed liked the world was shunning the AIDS and the gay communities. It is a monument to the often unrecognized heroes of the movement, to all the members of ACT UP, TAG and to those affected by AIDS/HIV. It is a real life view of this epidemic, from the perspective of the fighter, which has never really been explored before. My only regret is that I was not born earlier and could not partake in the raw power that was the AIDS activist network. However, this film reminds us that there is still action to be taken and there is still much to be done. How to Survive a Plague will undoubtedly redefine the AIDS epidemic for you and, as cliche as it sounds, inspire you to acknowledge the power that a dedicated group of individuals can have.
It is not at all surprising the this film was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival. I think I may have actually undersold it in my review. If you don’t go see this movie, you are missing out on an informative and emotional experience that one rarely finds in movies these days. I might just watch it again right now. Or on second thought, I might just drop out of school now and become an AIDS activist.
Go see this movie. No seriously now. Put down the paper, close your computer screen, put on your shoes and go.
A previous version of this article incorrectly noted the success of protozoan inhibitors in AIDS treatment. They are actually called protease inhibitors.