How to Survive a Plague captures a crusade
A documentary by David France. Unrated. Opens Friday, November 9, at the Vancity Theatre
Although offering a road map to self-empowerment, How to Survive a Plague also shows how dire things must get before people leave their couches and hit the street. Other documentary efforts, most notably the recent We Were Here, have offered elegies to the friends and loved ones lost during the 1980s, when HIV-related illnesses—whispered as “gay cancer”—began and spread quickly. This film focuses on the political, moral, and scientific crusade to counter the inaction and obstinacy of the era’s squeamish power structure, led by presidents Reagan and Bush I.
Action-movie fans will not be disappointed by first-time doc director David France’s literally gritty (given the amount of VHS footage), frequently kinetic tale. Beyond the requisite demo scenes—complete with protestors getting clubbed by mounted riot police—there is much righteous anger on display. Sometimes this is public, as in a fierce 1992 yell-off between articulate activist Bob Rafsky and then–presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Elsewhere, the unflappable Peter Staley, who quit his Wall Street job to be a full-time activist, flummoxes right-winger Pat Buchanan on live TV.
More often, frustration came out in the form of backstage infighting, as the crucial ACT UP group started splintering into factions, largely between street-action types and self-educating treatment specialists, increasingly viewed as out-of-touch elites after governments and pharmaceutical companies finally started including them in the process.
The film’s tensest moment comes during a Manhattan meeting crowded with activists trying to shout each other down. They are silenced by playwright Larry Kramer, who goes medieval on their asses by screaming “Plague!” and telling everyone to stop “pecking at each other” and get down to the business of saving lives. That we need to be reminded of how well they succeeded is a monument to heroism that may be quiet now but that started with a lot of necessary noise.
Watch the trailer for How to Survive a Plague.