30 Movies in 30 Days: How to Survive a Plague

Had I seen it before: No.

What IMDb says: The story of two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

Requirements fulfilled:

– At least one new movie solely because a friend or reader suggested it even if it’s not “your type” of movie (again).
– At least one movie I know nothing about, without reading a synopsis or watching a trailer ahead of time.

Why I picked it: My lovely friend Milo reached out to me knowing I had a documentary requirement and HIGHLY recommended this one. Highly was in all caps. So I really had no choice.

What I liked about it: This one 100% deserves to be HIGHLY recommended to everyone. I mentioned in my Jiro Dreams of Sushi post how I like for documentaries to combine the educational and emotional, and How to Survive a Plague also weaves these two together flawlessly. I also have a certain affinity for any movie that makes the FDA look this bad.

For background, I was born at the end of 1993 right as the AIDS epidemic in the US was winding down. I learned about AIDS in a strictly clinical sense during high school biology and then again in a college microbiology class.* However, there was always this sort of history book element to it. Like “yeah, that used to be a pretty big problem but we got past it.”

Prior to this movie, I had no understanding of the social activism element of the AIDS epidemic. I didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of what these activists were up against, and just how monumental it was for them to accomplish what they did in the timeframe that they did. It’s a feat that has rarely been matched by other activism groups, if ever. Thanks to How to Survive a Plague, I have this new sense of how big a luxury it is to be able to look at AIDS in a relic-of-the-past sort of way, a luxury many parts of the world still don’t have.

The movie accomplishes this is by relying almost exclusively on archival footage to tell the story of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). We spend relatively little time watching people reminisce about AIDS activism. Instead, we’re watching people fight for their lives in the moments they are fighting for them. In some cases it’s large-scale rallies and demonstrations at the white house or research facilities. In other cases, it’s intimate gatherings of activists talking strategy. Sometimes it’s activists doing interviews on the evening news programs. All of this transports us back in time, allowing us to experience the AIDS epidemic as an urgent crisis happening NOW rather than the history lesson it was in high school biology.

For one, let’s talk about the beginning of the movie. As mentioned above, I purposefully went into this movie without reading a synopsis or watching a trailer. However within 10 seconds I knew it was about AIDS. There was no voiceover or talking head explaining this to me. It used heartbreaking visuals of AIDS patients to immediately inform me what we’d be talking about AND get me invested in that topic. I was immediately thinking “Let’s do this. Let’s learn about AIDS.”

This emphasis on archival footage also means that for most of the movie, we’re in the dark about who’s going to live and who’s going to die from this disease. There’s this suspense that we don’t usually see in documentaries. One of the most powerful moments for me was a scene where many of the leading activists admitted that they did not expect to live long enough to see treatment become available. They expected to die and die soon. It made it that much more inspiring that they were fighting so hard for treatment they did not believe they would personally benefit from, and also that much more triumphant in the last 15 minutes when we got a grand reveal of who was still alive.

What I didn’t like about it: There’s a point in the movie where one faction of ACT UP splits off into TAG, the Treatment Action Group. From my understanding, this schism happened because of the conflict between the more academic side of activism (doing research, publishing policy papers, fighting for more funding of such research), and the social side of activism that wanted to focus on making AIDS treatments more accessible.

This type of infighting still exists in a LOT of activism communities for all sorts of different causes, and I think it would’ve been interesting to delve into it a bit more than How to Survive a Plague did. This was really the only point in the movie where I felt like I wasn’t really getting a complete story. Now the nice thing about documentaries is that since this is a true story, the resources are out there for me to learn more about this conflict myself. However I’m not sure any of them will be able to transport me into the conflict the way this movie did with so many of the other conflicts it explores.

Will I watch it again: I honestly don’t know. Even the best documentaries don’t always lend themselves to re-watching the way narrative movies can, but I like to think I will rewatch it. It’s definitely something I would HIGHLY recommend to a friend and totally one I would watch alongside a friend if that’s what it took to make them watch it.

*Ok it MIGHT have been towards the end of the semester and I MIGHT have skipped the AIDS chapter to focus on my major classes. I really don’t remember. I’ll re-read it though, the documentary was good enough to inspire further research into the matter.

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