Saturday, September 22, 2012

How to Survive a Plague

The staggering, draining and triumphant documentary “How to Survive a Plague” tells, through original video footage shot by the participants and carefully selected present-day interviews, the story of a band of war heroes. The war was the war on AIDS, and most of the heroes did not volunteer for the fight (though many inspiring allies, most of them women, adopted their cause despite not having the same personal stake). For the members of ACT UP New York, raising awareness of AIDS and sounding the drumbeat for federal research funding and accelerated drug testing were truly a matter of life or death.

Director David France has done an exceptional job of curating this exhibit, which spans the late 80s to the mid-90s. He brilliantly incorporates the stellate strands of the epidemic, from the social and political milieux of the times to the biology and medicine of the disease, which is presented in a way intelligent laypeople can understand. (Many members of ACT UP and its spinoff group TAG – Treatment Action Group – became self-taught experts in the hard science of AIDS.)

We come along for the ride at several staged events of civil disobedience, at which the group clamored for representation on key administrative panels and for FDA approval of potentially life-saving drugs that, in some cases, were sold over-the-counter in other industrialized nations. There were chants, yes, but also some very fine rhetoric, both from natural ombudsmen (Larry Kramer) and the rank and file. The police response was often unnecessarily violent and almost openly disdainful.

“How to Survive A Plague” will make your blood boil. I felt that same lump in my throat from “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt” and “Silverlake Life: The View From Here.” It’s not just the sheer volume of death, but the vitality, intelligence and loveliness of the (mostly) young men who perished that compounds the loss. Then, in 1996, the scientists found the right combination of protease inhibitors, and AIDS was no longer a death sentence. Through their self-education, activism, and refusal to die silently, these amazing men and women achieved a modern miracle.

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