In less than two weeks, stars will walk the red carpet in their best attire at the Academy Awards, better known as the Oscars. This year, the ceremony means a lot more than recognition for David France’s film; it means recognition for his cause.
France’s documentary, How to Survive a Plague, captures the fear, helplessness, and perseverance of activists in ACT UP and TAG, two organizations committed to fighting the AIDS epidemic in New York City’s gay community.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the virus was recognized and spreading rapidly throughout New York City. In 1992, France experienced the “plague” firsthand when his boyfriend, Doug Gould, died after contracting HIV.
The film is comprised of a series of found footage from the perspectives of protestors in the two organizations; people who were trying to get medical care and supplies for themselves and their community as quickly as possible. It is a heart-wrenching depiction of the struggle for help in stopping the disease.
While the majority of the content in the film is footage from the height of the city’s epidemic, it also contains interviews with prominent members of the fight who are still alive. As someone who does not know much about the start of AIDS activism, this film really gave me an idea of the ways in which this community was isolated and ignored.
A scene that truly disturbed me was when protestors filed into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to protest against the Catholic Church. I grew up in a Catholic family and it was incredible to see men and women lying on the floor of the church in order to finally be recognized. Instead of giving a voice to the protestors, the priest performing the mass just ignored them and continued on with the service. It was largely symbolic of the way that the patients and protestors were treated—until they finally took matters into their own hands.
Because AIDS affected the gay community in New York City more widely than any other, there was an added stigma that the film draws attention to. Religious groups, city officials and medical personnel all ignored the pleas of activists who were watching their friends and family die. No matter how loud, obstructive, or telling the protests were, they were continuously ignored.
How to Survive a Plague showcases the story of resistance against all odds, and the fight to achieve awareness and recognition. Through ACT UP’s efforts, and those who joined them in the fight, treatment for HIV and AIDS was made much more affordable and available. It is an intense film that drums up a lot of emotions for the cause, especially seeing the sheer pain in the faces of the members who are still alive, remembering those who died from the disease.
The way that the film uses footage from the actual protests; an animated depiction of the number of people dying from AIDS; and interviews with the former protestors, shows the depth of commitment these people and the filmmaker have to the cause. I hope that people will watch this film in order to learn about the origins of the AIDS epidemic, its treatment, and the people who fought for awareness of this issue.