In the 1980s and '90s, AIDS victims were dying at epidemically increasing rates, while research and clinical trials for effective drugs languished.
How to Survive a Plague uses interviews and archival footage of activists, scientists, politicians, and AIDS patients to recreate that time—and bears witness to the grass-roots activism of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group). With their own research, these change agents identified drugs with potential, pointed out the flaws in what few clinical trials were running, and agitated until politicians, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies examined, engaged with, and acted on the incontrovertible evidence. The efforts of ACT UP and TAG ultimately catalyzed international transformation of AIDS treatment.
The film employs a compelling story and strong interviews with diverse and credible participants. Like all effective documentaries, it puts faces and personalities to the statistics and makes the viewer care deeply about them as individuals—and as a population struggling for a fair chance at survival. (Many of the activists knew that even if successful, they would not live to see the results.) What this documentary has achieved is particularly remarkable in light of its poor construction and editing. Much of the archival footage is of questionable quality, and the vignettes do not flow smoothly. Ironically, that perhaps makes a fitting metaphor for the obstacles and upheavals this movement overcame.
Congratulations are in order to David France for making this film on a subject momentous to both the history and future of not only the gay community, but to humanity.