How To Survive A Plague
Dir: David France
Cert:NR • USA: 109 min • Public Square Films • 2012
I have never been in a cinema and witness an entire crowd stand at the end of a film and give a heart-warming standing ovation. But that’s what happened when I went to see David France’s Oscar nominated How to Survive a Plague at the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. People not only stood and cheered, many wiped away tears as France took to the stage and looked genuinely taken back by the appreciation of his work.
The documentary tells the story of the AIDS pandemic through the eyes of the AIDS activist groups ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group). It focuses on several of the group’s key activists and, starting in the late 1980s, chronologically tells the story of their fight to research and access treatable drugs for patients with AIDS. Shot through archive interviews, newsreels and camcorder footage, it’s a truly inspirational story of how a community can come together and fight for real social change.
I almost had to remind myself that it wasn’t a suspense thriller; this was a documentary of real life events and a plague which had no end in sight for such a long time. Each year the death toll was rising, the US government persisted to ignore the calls for further action to be taken and the recently deceased ex-mayor of New York Ed Koch called the protestors the work of fascists. It makes uncomfortable viewing to see such action attacked and belittled as the work of trouble makers rather than a community’s voice fighting to be heard.
Possibly one of the most moving scenes was the focus on the run up to the 1992 US Presidential election. Tens of thousands of protestors took part in ‘Ashes Action’. People were so frustrated with being disregarded by their government as mere ashes and bones that they took the ashes and bones of loved ones up the Whitehouse and scattered them across the lawn in an act of grief and love in the hope it would bring further action from the government to help end the crisis.
I must admit to my ignorance of not knowing how we came to the breakthrough of combinational therapy which has since enriched HIV patients lives considerably. When France was asked by a member of the audience why the documentary wasn’t made sooner, he likened it to such atrocities as the Holocaust, and that sometimes when you have lived through and survived something so horrific it takes time to absorb it before you are able to speak about it. Such a large number of the people in the film are either no longer here to share their experiences, or their whereabouts unknown, that we can only be thankful to France for being finding the courage to speak out and share this story with us now.
Mark Harrington (cofounder and policy director of TAG) says that if only Reagan had listened in the early ’80s to the calls for AIDS research then maybe there wouldn’t have been so many deaths. If it wasn’t for the efforts of Harrington and his colleagues the death toll would have kept rising.
This documentary does make you feel a debt of gratitude for the battles won so that future generations could live and continue the struggle against HIV/AIDS. It’s a harrowing thought to wonder what we, the LGBT community, if it wasn’t for the actions of these activists.
France’s historical account is essential viewing. It’s honest, moving and a stark reminder of how even in the darkest of times there is hope for survival.