h o w  t o  s u r v i v e  a  p l a g u e

Peter Staley, ACT UP arrest - HiRes.jpeg

8th November 2013

David France

Greenwich Village

120 Minutes



3rd November 2013

UK Release







As part of a generation that only has fleeting memories of the height of the AIDS epidemic, it’s easy to forget just how quickly HIV arrived, how quickly it spread and just what effect this had on the communities that it thrived in. Even today, large parts of the world are still stuck in the early nineties in relation to the virus, a truly horrific thought, brought back into focus in this truly impressive documentary.

How to Survive a Plague is David France’s debut as a director and indeed only the second film he’s worked on in any form. It’s an amazing debut. France has assembled a wealth of archive footage from TV programmes, activists home movies, news reports you name it, to chart the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that began killing 40 odd people in 1981 and managed to kill 8 million some fifteen years later. He interviews the survivors in the present day, not only giving a current day perspective but also tragically highlighting the number of victims that didn’t make it. 

The main focus for the movie is the underground treatment movement formed in Greenwich Village New York in the late eighties and early nineties. HIV/AIDS victims around that time were overwhelmingly male homosexuals who, given little information about the risks of the virus, had inadvertently found themselves at the epicentre. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) advocacy group was formed by the Greenwich community when it started to become clear that central government had little interest in prioritising drug trials or researching treatment plans for the virus. Seen as mostly a self inflicted disease that only affect gay people, little was done by the Reagan administration and not much more by Bush Snr. The administrations' attitudes succinctly captured in footage of pantomime villain and all round walking horror-show Jesse Helms barking that the gay community should just shut up.  

The archive footage unearthed by France is a revelation. HIV/AIDS hit first in the early eighties but was just hitting its stride as consumer electronics were becoming more available, thus there is a treasure trove of found footage to narrate the story. ACT UP’s first meetings are all captured on film and France stitches this together to effectively capture the fear and spirit of the era. A diverse collection of people are brought together. Sufferers who have little to lose but are desperate to live are joined by a small number of people from the scientific community who could not understand the government’s intransigence on what they knew was going to be a global issue.

It’s impossible to watch this documentary without considering just how heroic all of these people were. Seeing beyond their own suffering, they understood the facts of the situation and were willing to put their head’s above the parapet in order to actually affect change. Peaceful rallies are formed as ACT UP is forced to attack not only central government but also greedy pharmaceutical companies and wilfully moronic church attitudes. A protest in a large Catholic Church in New York is brilliantly captured on film as protestors merely lie down in the aisles to the general confusion of the congregation.

How to Survive a Plague captures what from a government’s point of view is the worst kind of activist group. The members of ACT UP are intelligent, persistent, pragmatic, united and driven. A powerful combination. But it also captures the inevitable implosion. Fighting on so many fronts eventually became too much for the group and when the two main drugs available to HIV/AIDS sufferers are proved to be mostly ineffective, the group turns inwards and internal conflict threatens to derail their efforts. in 1992, a breakaway group is formed to continue lobbying for treatment research. The infighting is genuinely distressing as the playwright Larry Cramer finally loses his temper at a meeting and uses the word ‘plague’ for the first time. It’s a powerful and heartfelt speech,all captured on murky nineties footage.

Rightly nominated for an Academy award (losing out to Searching for Sugar Man), How to Survive a Plague is a wonderful example of documentary making. Well researched, meticulously put together and hugely respectful of its subject matter, this is a movie that should be seen. Given its grim subject matter, it is surprisingly upbeat, again capturing the spirit of the community. Packed with a wealth of gut wrenching scenes, in particular the sight of hundreds of people throwing their loved ones’ ashes through the fence of the White House in protest at the government, this is a timely reminder that the virus still continues to decimate communities today. Captions at the end of the movie state the number of people who have been saved by the actions of the Greenwich Village community, they also state the number still dying because they cannot afford the drugs. That the former figure is six million and the latter figure is two million is down to people like those brilliantly captured in this movie. This movie is a suitable epitaph for those who didn’t make it and a testament to those who did.

Check out the trailer here.

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