Judge Brett Cullum reviews one of best and most important documentaries of 2012.
Silence equals death.
How to Survive a Plague was nominated for a 2012 Oscar, but lost to a more good natured, feel-good movie in the race. What a pity, because this documentary about AIDS activism is one of the most important releases for GLBT cinema right now. It chronicles the protests and actions of ACT UP and then TAG as the epidemic evolved from the late '80s to the middle of the '90s. The most amazing part of this feature is it is made up primarily of actual video on the scenes of the rallies and protests. You get a firsthand view as the gay angry mobs invade the streets of New York City, storm pharmaceutical research centers, and dump ashes of loved ones on the grounds of the White House. Talking heads provide perspective and fill in the voids in the narrative, but primarily we are seeing everything unfold unfiltered by means of cinema verite. This is vital viewing to understand where the GLBT community has come from and what a great debt it owes to its members who fought on the front lines during the AIDS crisis.
The movie starts off in 1987 when ACT UP was fighting for the FDA to approve drugs for treatment of HIV patients. Director David France concentrates on Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, Iris Long, Larry Kramer and their cohorts as they plan how to demonstrate in the heart of Greenwich Village. We see meetings held at night in crowded school rooms, explosive debates about whether it is worth it to risk jail, and then witness hundreds of men and women take to the streets in a call to arms. Their actions seemed extreme back in the '80s, but what is amazing now is to see how much these people effected change and accomplished what they set out to do. What could be a mournful topic becomes a story of how anger and grief empowered a generation of gays to allow the next to live, despite a devastating diagnosis.
The DVD presents the film as cleanly and clearly as it can be viewed. It is hard to judge the transfer since so much of How to Survive a Plague is handheld video footage taken at protests with police jamming their hands into cameras. There is a nice, strong, five-channel surround track so that you can feel immersed in the crowd. Extras include a director's commentary where he is joined by four original ACT UP members to further discuss the movement and the feature. There is also quite a nice chunk of deleted scenes that shows some memorable moments that enhance the main movie.
How to Survive a Plague should be required viewing in the GLBT community because it serves as a vital history lesson lost now as the tide has turned a bit. AIDS patients are living now, have treatments available to them, and the prognosis is not the same instant death sentence it was back in 1987. But what few people know now is that it was all thanks to an angry mob that pressured the U.S. government and pharmaceutical companies to take the crisis more seriously and act quickly. They learned how to cut through clinical trials and make companies work faster. Silence equaled death, and they knew it was time to speak in a very loud voice. How to Survive a Plague was nominated for an Academy Award and it landed on many "best of" lists for 2012. It deserved every honor it garnered as it toured around the country, mostly in gay film festivals rather than in wide release. This is what documentary filmmaking is all about as it is powerful, real, soulful, and in the end is a story that empowers people to know the history of a deadly disease whose fight is far from over. A cautionary tale that sometimes angers is the best medicine for a society that's not listening to its cries for help.
Not guilty because it reminds the world of what it was like to be gay and
angry in 1987.
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