'How to Survive a Plague' on frontlines of an epidemic: review

David France's deftly chronicles 1980s Greenwich Village while it was in the grip of the AIDS crisis.

September 20, 2012|By Sheri Linden
  • A scene from "How to Survive a Plague."
A scene from "How to Survive a Plague." (IFC Films )

The latest in a recent spate of AIDS-themed documentaries, "How to Survive a Plague" is an exceptional portrait of a community in crisis and the focused fury of its response.

Journalist-turned-filmmaker David France set out to make a "witness account" of 1980s Greenwich Village and the rise of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP. His film succeeds not just as a vivid chronicle of recent history but as a primer in grassroots activism.

France uses present-day interviews sparingly, to poignant effect, and wisely structures the film mainly from unofficial archives he dug up. Much of that footage was shot by frontline participants availing themselves of the newly accessible technology of camcorders, and it lends the doc an in-the-crucible immediacy.

PHOTOS: Films in 2012

Emerging six years after the first appearance of the "mystery disease," ACT UP stepped into a kind of dark ages, when the sick were still being turned away by many hospitals and the dead refused by funeral parlors.

The group adopted familiar forms of civil disobedience, but, as the documentary emphasizes, the activists' most notable legacy is the course of medical and pharmaceutical self-education they embarked upon, and the way they took their protests directly to drug companies and policymakers.

The men and women who assumed leadership roles in ACT UP possessed an eloquence to match their passion, whether engaged in in-fighting or eulogizing a friend. Many of them were HIV-positive, not expecting to survive the struggle but refusing to go gentle.

If the impact of their relentless push for treatment was real, it's also a timely reminder that, as one group of 1980s demonstrators insists, "Healthcare is a right."


"How to Survive a Plague." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. At the Nuart, West Los Angeles.

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