How to Survive a Plague is a film that was only released in UK cinemas last weekend, but which won a number of awards during last year’s film festival circuit; including the Boston Society of Film Critics best documentary, as well as winning in the same category at the Gotham Awards. It was also nominated for an Academy Award.
The documentary – directed by David France, and written by France, T. Woody Richman and Tyler Walker – provides an overview of the AIDS epidemic in New York City during the 80s, as both the casualties and the heinous reputation of its sufferers grew to extreme heights. As NYC Mayor of the time Ed Koch did little to act on the sweeping infection, activist groups such as ACT-UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group), led a powerful campaign in order to gain access to medication that was currently being denied to AIDS victims. Their movement also sought to alter perceptions of New York’s LGBT community, whose identity was, and still is, inherently linked to the spread of the virus.
France’s How to Survive a Plague is a work that should be applauded for bringing to our attention a struggle that was so intensively ignored during its time – a period not too long ago, where sick people were turned away from hospitals due to the stigma attached to their illness, and politicians and presidents recoiled in fear and disgust (It might surprise people to learn that Bush Jr did, and continues to do, more work combatting AIDS in Africa than any other US president – much more than he is given credit for) . Praise should also be given to the activist groups featured here, for the ceaseless filming and documenting of their meetings and campaigns; without which this production would not have been possible, and the struggle of this marginalised group would have remained unknown to its audiences. What France’s film ultimately achieves is in showing how meaningful change can occur when people are willing to stand up to their oppressors, a theme of revolution prevalent throughout the entirety of post-colonial American history, but which seems to have gotten lost in this current Twitter-age.
How to Survive a Plague is an affecting snapshot of a period of history, which remains relevant due to the comparable problems posed to others in similar situations today – albeit most likely on a different continent. For further viewing on the problematic relationship between Big Pharma and HIV/AIDS victims in other areas of the world, please see Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary Fire in the Blood.