January 28, 2013 by abbyo
For the next four weeks, No More Popcorn is reviewing all of the films nominated for Best Documentary. To find out more about the movies I’ll be writing about, check out the previous post.
In the final sequence of David France’s Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” AIDS activist Peter Staley speaks at a World AIDS conference in the early 90s. “When future generations ask us what we did in the war, we have to be able to tell them that we were out there fighting,” Staley tells the audience of medical professionals, quoting fellow AIDS activist Vito Russo. “And we have to leave a legacy to the generations of people who will come after us.” In the archival footage, Staley is speaking to fellow men and women fighting on the front lines of the battle against AIDS. But in the context of France’s inspiring, passionate film, the message resonates as a rallying cry for anyone who’s ever wanted to make a difference in the world.
Staley and his fellow activists did leave an impressive legacy with the work they did, impacting not just the way we remember the AIDS epidemic, but the way clinical trials are conducted, and the way other activists get their causes heard. “How to Survive a Plague” chronicles the work of AIDS activists in the late 80s and early 90s in a way that doesn’t just highlight their struggle and the shamefully delayed reaction of our government to treating the disease. It also shows, step-by-step, the successes and life cycle of their movement.
The activists profiled in France’s documentary are members of Act Up, a gay and lesbian activist group that formed in the late 80s as a response to the growing AIDS epidemic. France introduces us to key figures of the movement—how they got involved, and what their experiences were during the course of their work. The film is cram-packed with information and archival footage showing the development of AIDS treatment not only from Act Up’s perspective, but from the perspective of the scientists working on a cure. It provides a dramatic through-line following the parallel histories of medical development and desperate, impassioned people fighting for their lives until, finally, the two connect.
“How to Survive a Plague” doesn’t always work as a narrative of Act Up. Audiences who are unfamiliar with the movement or Larry Kramer, one of its founders, won’t find much in the way of an origin story. Anyone looking to find out more information about the people behind the movement—personalities, personal histories, or anything beyond names and roles—will be disappointed, too. France uses talking heads only when he absolutely has to give context, preferring instead to tell the story through archival footage. Fortunately for him, there’s a lot of it, and it easily shoulders the bulk of the film.
France provides a running tally of worldwide AIDS deaths, and shows (through footage) Act Up members from year to year, sometimes looking sicker and sounding more desperate as time progresses. It gives the audience a strong emotional connection to the events being recounted, and drives home the documentary’s point in a subtle but powerful way. We’re reminded, time and time again, that these activists were so filled with passion and so committed because they were fighting for their very lives. Some, like Staley, didn’t expect to live to see the fruits of their labors. Many didn’t.
One could reasonably argue that the reason “How to Survive a Plague” has gotten so much praise is because the movement it documents is so powerful, not necessarily because the film itself represents good documentary storytelling. Certainly, France does make the mistake of assuming his audience knows more about the story of the AIDS epidemic than they probably do. But “How to Survive a Plague” is also a movie for the politically divided times we live in. France has taken what could just as well be a history lesson and made it feel immediate and timely. That kind of work deserves recognition every bit as much as exposes and character studies.