Unlike most advocacy documentaries that have to explain how much of a difference they made, How to Survive a Plague actually shows results.
How to Survive a Plague
Léa Pool’s documentary Pink Ribbons Inc. points out early on that the breast cancer awareness movement originally had an activist background. One of the documentary’s talking heads points out that before women were running for a cure they were marching in the streets for one. How to Survive a Plague follows the response to the AIDS epidemic throughout the 1980s and 90s, which also had a strong activist movement behind it. The difference between the two films is that, while Pink Ribbons Inc. shows the failures of the breast cancer movement, How to Survive a Plague highlights the progress AIDS activists made in getting proper treatment. Unlike most advocacy documentaries that have to explain how much of a difference they made, How to Survive a Plague, which is largely made up of camcorder footage made by the protest groups, actually shows results.
Starting in 1987 (with the worldwide death toll from AIDS hitting over 500,000, but soon ballooning to over 3 million by the 90s), the documentary uses footage taped by members of ACT UP, an activist group formed in New York City. The meetings were ways to organize protests against people and institutions that were discriminating against people with the disease or keeping silent on the issue. Soon Iris Long, a chemist and housewife, enters the picture and starts to give advice on how to go after the scientific community.
It’s at this point that anyone watching How to Survive a Plague has to marvel at the work done by ACT UP. The group’s members immediately get together and go through scientific journals in order to try and understand everything they can. Mark Harrington, a graduate from Harvard, starts distributing a glossary of terms to help people know what they’re reading. Protests are organized around the FDA and medical research facilities to try and speed up their trials so medications with results don’t get delayed for years. They start smuggling drugs into America that have signs of helping based on studies in Europe and Asia.
The footage and ACT UP’s efforts to find treatment for the AIDS virus is riveting to watch, filled with moving and cinematic moments that show the scale of ACT UP’s battle. Moments like Larry Kramer’s attack on the group’s infighting (“We are in the middle of a plague!” he yells at the group) and protestors pouring the ashes of their loved ones on the White House lawn are some of the most powerful images to come out this year. Every moment resonates with the urgency that these people, most of whom have AIDS, are feeling as they’re literally fighting for their lives.
At the end we learn about how real, successful methods of treatment were discovered. The surviving ACT UP members still express regret over how the initial treatments they fought for were useless, but nobody denies how important their involvement was in being able to prolong the lives of people with AIDS. Over the last several years there’s been a trend in doomsday documentaries, where talking heads go on about how terrible a situation is until the last 5 minutes when a brief optimistic message is thrown out before the credits roll. While the fight to cure AIDS is far from over as millions still can’t get the proper treatment, How to Survive a Plague will leave people feeling hopeful that it can be done sooner rather than later. If a small, concentrated group of people can get results like this, what’s stopping anyone else from getting things done?