Movies You Missed 77: How to Survive a Plague | Live Culture

Movies You Missed 77: How to Survive a Plague

Our weekly review of flicks that skipped Vermont theaters

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David France's documentary shows how public protests led to the development of an effective AIDS treatment.
  • David France's documentary shows how public protests led to the development of an effective AIDS treatment.

This week in movies you missed: how ACT UP gave AIDS patients a future.

What You Missed

This documentary from journalist David France takes us through crucial stages in the early history of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), from its formation in 1987 (“six years into the epidemic”) to the first demonstration of an effective retroviral therapy in 1996.

The thesis is that, as founder and playwright Larry Kramer puts it, “Every single drug that's out there is because of ACT UP.” The case is convincing.

In the early years of AIDS, we’re shown, the public saw it as a disease confined to the gay community. Conservative pundits and lawmakers suggested it would vanish if homosexuals simply “changed their behavior” (i.e., embraced celibacy). With widespread uncertainty about how the infection spread, some hospitals turned patients away. Treatment was virtually nonexistent, and the pace of scientific research was glacial.

By confronting the FDA, the National Institutes of Health and other institutions with the consequences of that inaction, ACT UP changed that. At the same time, a subcommittee teamed up with a chemist-turned-housewife, Iris Long, to do its own research and outline a treatment plan. For activists living with HIV or full-blown AIDS, it was a matter of life and death.

Why You Missed It

Despite an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, How to Survive a Plague only reached 15 U.S. theaters.

Should You Keep Missing It?

What amazed me about How to Survive a Plague was how little I remember the events documented here, despite being a young adult at the time. What I do remember is that the media depicted ACT UP as an extremist organization that took in-your-face approaches. (Plenty of straight people were totally freaked out by tactics such as “kiss-ins” back then.)

France’s film showed me the other side: why those shock tactics were necessary, and what they accomplished.

For an ignorant viewer like me, the film’s most powerful moment is when we learn which of the young activists we’ve been following are still alive in middle age to give interviews, thanks to the treatment that might not have existed without their efforts. It’s a reveal reminiscent of the reality show “I Shouldn’t Be Alive,” but it works.

Long before digital video, ACT UP was a sophisticated, self-documenting movement, so France lets the activists tell the story in their own words. We see film and video footage from interviews, strategy meetings and demonstrations, including some inspired acts of outrage: disrupting services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, tenting Jesse Helms’ house in a giant condom. We also see how dissension and debate within ACT UP led to the formation of new groups, such as TAG (Treatment Action Group).

Overall, it’s a powerful testament to the value of not lying down and going quietly. By getting “in your face,” ACT UP did more than fight AIDS: It helped pave the way for a society where marriage equality was conceivable and same-sex couples could star in silly network sitcoms.

Verdict: Essential viewing for anyone too young to remember when HIV/AIDS was a rapid death sentence — and for those who have only a vague notion of how and why that changed in the U.S.

More New Off-the-Beaten Track DVDs

Chicken With Plums (feature drama from comic artist Marjane Satrapi)

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare (doc about one of our biggest problems)

Fast Girls (Not that kind. It’s a drama about a competitive sprinter.)

Holy Motors (My Best Picture of 2012. More info here.)

The Loneliest Planet

The Master

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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