Both gripping and wrenching -- not to mention thrilling -- David France's documentary, How to Survive a Plague, opening Friday, September 21, in limited release, recalls a slice of recent history that is in danger of being lost.
There is more than a generation that's been born since the start of the AIDS epidemic in 1981 -- many of whom have no idea the struggle that AIDS activists went through to get the government and the drug companies to take their life-and-death struggle with the urgency that the patients were feeling it. France's film examines a specific strand of that narrative: the efforts by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and its offshoot, TAG (Treatment Action Group), to get the FDA and the National Institutes of Health to speed up the process by which drugs were tested and approved for the treatment of HIV and AIDS.
The story France tells is compelling, focusing on a small but self-educated group of civilians who put the government's feet to the fire through protests and direct political action. Starting with the FDA (and signs that said, in essence, "You're killing us,") and moving into global political protest and action, ACT UP was essential in forcing the various drug conglomerates to think differently, to act more speedily and to move these treatments into the public arena to help save lives.
Covering the decade from 1986-97, when the so-called "cocktail" was discovered to halt the progress of HIV, France's film brings together archival footage from TV but also, more importantly, from the collections of the activists themselves, who had begun to document their work with the newly affordable home-video camcorder. France sorted through thousands of hours of VHS and other formats of footage to come up with what is a stunning document of a period.
The cameras are there for each meeting, each action, each protest and speech. He chronicles the impact on some government scientists, who became advocates for the group's cause.
This review continues on my website.