Documentaries are wonderful, but it’s sometimes difficult to get in the mood to watch them, especially when they’re about something as emotionally complex as AIDS, like this week’s How to Survive a Plague. As amazing of a documentary as it is, you know in the back of your mind before sitting down to watch that it’s going to be gut wrenching, depressing and angering, but please don’t let that deter you. How to Survive a Plague is an important film that is put together with passion and care. Even if you don’t know anyone with HIV, this is a must see.
Told almost entirely with footage and interviews shot during the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s, How to Survive a Plague follows a group called ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a group comprised primarily of the gay and lesbian community, many of whom suffer from the AIDS disease, that fight for AIDS stricken people by lobbying for better healthcare, hoping to find a cure in the midst of a plague. Keep in mind that this was a time when the LGBT community was treated even worse than they are now, to the point where one person, when talking about the AIDS virus and the gay men inflicted with it, comments that they deserve it simply for being who they are. Although its central focus is AIDS and the struggle to get proper treatment, this film is also about discrimination, homophobia and gay rights.
But its thematic focus doesn’t stop there. It also touches on ignorant and irresponsible religious teachings, shown most effectively when the Catholic Church, right at the height of the AIDS epidemic, spoke out against condoms, saying they were immoral and ineffective against disease. To this day, the Church still considers such sexual safety precautions as evil. It’s a mentality that goes against the very idea of valuing life. They’re claiming to be helping people when, in reality, they’re spreading harmful lies that inevitably led (and still lead) to unnecessary infections and death.
The reason this movie works as well as it does is because it’s not limited just to the time captured onscreen. All of its themes are issues that are still ongoing and the film, perhaps unknowingly, creates correlations between that time and today, like during (mostly) peaceful demonstrations where those dying with AIDS, those who were being turned away from hospitals by doctors who refused to diagnose their illness and who were being charged an unreasonable $10,000 a year for preventative drugs, marched in protest to a government that wasn’t doing enough to help and a capitalist society that valued money over human life (2,000,000 people, those who can’t afford preventative treatment, still die from AIDS every year, just to put that into perspective). It’s not unlike the recent Occupy Wall Street protests, where the innocent speaking out about against an unjust system were thrown in jail while those responsible and those with the power to do good did equal amounts of nothing. (And let’s not forget the chanting of “Health care is a right!” that speaks volumes in today’s political climate.)
Occasionally, these protests go a little overboard, though I hesitate to call them extreme since they never got violent, but the AIDS protesters do obscure their message a bit with some of their more uncouth tactics. However, when rare moments like these, where you start to feel yourself sympathize less with them, are followed by a cop running over one of them with a horse and beating them with a baton, that wavering feeling immediately corrects itself. These people were dying and they were being ignored, criticized and harmed for speaking out. When that miracle treatment rolls around that allows those infected to manage the disease and live long, happy lives, a simultaneous feeling of joy and sadness overwhelm you, joy for those who had beat it and sadness for those who fought so hard, but couldn’t.
How to Survive a Plague is an emotionally heavy film and in spite of its difficult subject and sad moments, it’s ultimately hopeful and life affirming. Due to its construction, the film’s visuals are grainy and ugly, but the insistence on using almost entirely old footage effectively transports you back to a time of hostility, anger, sadness and fear. At times, it feels as if you’re really there fighting alongside them. If nothing else, the film is a call to action, both to find cures for diseases that continue to destroy and to not devalue the worth of a life, whether it is a gay or straight one.
How to Survive a Plague receives 4.5/5