Fighting For Life and Lifestyle
Filmmaker David France’s How to Survive a Plague tracks the role of activists -- women and men, gay and straight -- in demanding that the U.S. government and health care system focus on the HIV AIDS epidemic as their priority, find viable treatments and treat patients humanely. With ongoing public protests, their brave efforts, born of desperation and justified rage, eventually brought great results, with the reduction of the number of fatalities and the end of the ever-expanding death-dealing epidemic that had been devastating the GLBT community for a decade.
Goint Into Battle and The Campaign
The campaign was spearheaded by Act-Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and Act-Up's leadership and activities are the primary focus of the film. The organization began in 1987, with a small group of activists who were motivated by witnessing their friends' deaths, and in the many cases of those who were HIV positive, the urgent need to take action to prevent their own deaths -- or, if that were not possible, to save the lives of others in the community. The group was adamant, vocal and volatile, demanding action rather than politely asking for it and standing by when their requests were refused.
At the time diagnosis with HIV-AIDS was a death sentence. Plain and simple. There were few treatments -- even experimental ones -- that were accessible. Patients who wanted to try experimental treatments and drugs had to get them illegally, smuggling them into the country at great expense.
At the time, the mainstream political environment and social climate were homophobic and punitive. President Ronald Reagan was simply ignoring the epidemic, and the general public -- terrified of the disease -- attributed the disease and its effects to homosexuality and the GLBT lifestyle. In the extreme, right wing Senator Jesse Helms even commented, "They asked for it." Unfortunately that jaundiced, ignorant view was supported by a large segment of the population. It was reflected in the refusal of many hospitals to admit and treat AIDS patients, and in funeral homes refusing to bury those who died from the disease or related complications.
With the death toll rising dramatically each year, the GLBT community came together in 1987 to change the public's perceptions about HIV-AIDS and advocate for changes in public policy, and demand that would make way for progress in finding a cure or an effective treatment that would prevent death from the disease.
Keeping The Record Straight
The HIV-AIDS epidemic is important and disturbing chapter in America's political, social and medical history, and it has been the subject of a number of previous documentaries. Some of these profile leaders in the campaign to fight AIDS, others tell the stories of and memorialize those individuals who suffered with the disease and succumbed to it. Still others focus on the way in which the disease and the widespread consequences of the epidemic on public welfare and individual who either had the disease or were close to someone who did.
What sets How To Survive A Plague apart from the other HIV-AIDS documentaries is that it provides a comprehensive and compassionate overview of the movement, including some revealing insider information about rifts in the GLBT community about how the campaign should be handled, and what tactics should be followed. The conflict was due to differing opinions about whether fighting back meant fighting. Most of the community felt that they could bring about change without undue violence. Others were more accepting of violent outbreaks during protest rallies and in response to the public's brutality. Many activists were arrested and served time in jail for disturbing the piece and other charges.
But the thrust was always to change policy -- and the leaders of the movement were determined to amass the most current knowledge about the disease and treatments, as well as statistical data about effectiveness of specific drugs and on the spread of the disease and its death toll.
Once organized, Act Up placed blame on politicians and other leaders who failed to take action to quell the epidemic, and they did massive research to compile all data on the disease, outbreaks and drugs in test phases and the results of those tests.
In response to the added pressure applied by Act Up activists, pharmacy focused formidable efforts to fine effective drugs, and the government speeded up the protocol for testing them. As a result of the activists' protests, by 1996 treatments were available and the annual death toll from HIV-AIDS and complications had begun to decline. Many of the infected activists didn't live to see the turn around, but they are commemorated in this film and other works of art.
Bearing WitnessPeter Staley, Larry Kramer and Iris Long were key figures in the movement, and they are featured in this documentary, in both contemporary interviews and through the use of archival footage that shows them in various states of their careers and disease through the years of the campaign.
David France's documentary is a stand out because of its scope. France, who's been covering the HIV-AIDS plague for mainstream media for a decade, does a extremely good job of putting together everything that's known about epidemic, and then letting audiences in.
The affecting, inspiring film inadvertently raises the question of whether it takes a plague to galvanize concerned citizens into action. That’s an important non-gender question in today’s world, and this film can influence opinion.
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- Title: How To Survive A Plague
- Director: David France
- U.S. Theatrical Release Date: September 28, 2012, in limited release/
- Running Time: 93 mins.
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
- Production Country: USA
- Filming Locations: New York, San Francisco, Washington DC and other US cities
- Language: English
- Theatrical Distribution Company: Nancy Fishman Film Releasing