Documentaries rarely come as piercing and purposeful as this. David France’s angry, upsetting and highly condemnatory account of the 1980’s American AIDS crisis – where a group of activist unite an enraged and fatally compromised gay community to stand up against the triptych of Reagan-Bush-Clinton administrations who fail to hasten bureaucratic processes and prevent the deaths of thousands – will push both your rational and emotional buttons in all the right, inflamed reasons. For one, it took America to respond almost a decade-and-a-half to push through a mixture of drugs that alleviate the AIDS epidemic, even going so far as beyond neglect, suppressing the crisis with back-hand nonchalance and barely suppressed homophobia in the echelons of a so-called democratic government elected to protect the welfare of its people. Even at one point, Bush Senior dismissed the angry mob with a furtive statement “Change your behaviour” to a great number of mortally jeopardised individuals. Secondly, the group of activists comprised of brave, intelligent human beings – Harrington, Rafsky, Staley to name a few – are AIDS sufferers themselves, who all charge an epic fight in an almost insurmountable war against a bullying, unyielding system that quells progress for capital gains.
Recently, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club has dramatised the American HIV crisis through awards-baiting lens, but France’s blistering doc puts together an excruciating spectacle of human activism where real lives are put on the line, where devastating drama unfolds through archival 80’s camcorder footage without the convenience of any script. How To Survive A Plague is about a group of people who are facing their own deaths and if they didn’t take matters into their own hands, they wouldn’t have been around to tell this historic tale. Like all wars, there are huge losses, families and close friends perish and these activists could’ve been those ashes thrown across the White House lawn (a heart-wrenching sequence with the force of an emotional bulldozer). It’s not until 1996 that the FDA fast-tracked the development of a cocktail of drugs made available to alleviate the pandemic, but by that time, these men have grown with exhaustion from a long-gestating battle – the number of street protests they gathered, speeches they made, state rooms they lobbied, people they lost and funerals they attended. This is the film to remind the world why they are the individuals to look up to, the real life heroes that fought tooth and nails for a cultural wave of change.
How To Survive A Plague DVD is released on 31 March.