New York was Ground Zero in the 1980s for the activist AIDS movement known as ACT UP, and David France's wrenching documentary, How to Survive a Plague, captures that time as never before with footage he has gathered going 30 years back. The heroism, heartbreak and raw commitment of a group of raging, dying gay men (and a few straight activists) remains a testament to the power of the human spirit when we face catastrophe together, focused like a laser on a common goal. Besieged by a mysterious virus, stonewalled by doctors who didn't know how to save them and opposed by a federal drug bureaucracy, which took far too long to take seriously their deaths, the first generation of people with AIDS laid their bodies on the line, literally -- from the famous Lie In to interrupt the homophobic sermons of ex-cardinal John O'Connor of St. Patrick's Cathedral to the Kiss In at St. Vincent's Hospital.
France gives us moments of sheer prophetic perfection -- playwright Larry Kramer with Old Testament fury, shouting at a disruptive colleague who was rudely trying to take over an ACT UP meeting, "Plague! Plague! We're in the middle of a plague and this is how you behave!" Or the images of men in tears as they threw the ashes of their loved ones through the openings of an iron fence onto the White House grounds while police on horseback attempted to beat them back, the ashes blowing in the wind and landing on the pristine lawns of power. We were both emotional as we watched this film, flooded as we were with memories and feelings of that time. (Mark was at those ACT UP meetings in New York, while Catherine was in San Francisco watching the epidemic take down dozens of friends -- and eventually her beloved brother -- in those early years of viral Armageddon). The experience of seeing this film was akin to a memorial for those we both have loved and lost as well as for that time itself; those years of terror when the disease was a death sentence spreading like a wildfire. In year one, there were 41 cases worldwide. By year ten of the epidemic there were 40 million.
The film has evidently struck an emotional chord for many others as well. It is one of the five nominees for an Academy Award in Best Documentary and has already won Best Film prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Independent Spirit Awards, and numerous others. We highly recommend it (and hope it wins the Oscar). Check out our discussion of the film in the YouTube clip for Dharma Salon below. Till next time.
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