Review: How to Survive a Plague

Sheffield Doc/Fest is the most exciting and vibrant festival in the UK for documentary and digital media, running June 13th to 17th 2012. Over the next few days, I will be recommending my personal highlights from the vast and varied film programme.

How to Survive a Plague (2012), directed by David France.

Compiled from archive footage and a series of interviews, How to Survive a Plague charts the actions of ACT UP and TAG, two organisations at the heart of AIDS activism, during the height of the pandemic’s grip on America.

Do not think me excessive when I say that this is one of the most important films ever made. HIV/AIDS is still prevalent in the UK today, and statistics show that many young people are woefully unaware of the realities of the condition. I was born in 1989, Eight years after the official ‘start’ of the AIDS pandemic, and eight years before the FDA’s approval of the first combination drug therapy for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. The latter was a wonderful breakthrough, and (thankfully) the ravages of the disease are no longer so prominent on our streets. There is a real danger, however, that this renders them less prominent in the minds of a generation who never witnessed first-hand the unfolding of the epidemic. From How to Survive a Plague’s opening sequence, the viewer is constantly reminded of the cruel potential of AIDS, and the millions of lives it has taken over the years. These are images that should be seen by every man, woman and child, gay or straight, young or old, black or white, who is now, or ever intends to be sexually active. How to Survive a Plague should be shown in schools.

There are several messages to be taken from the film. Certainly, How to Survive a Plague is a damning indictment of the cruelty of both Church and State in its attitudes to LGBT and other minority groups, as well as the utter injustice of the continued vilification of HIV/AIDS sufferers, but beyond this are two more powerful and poignant points. The first is the ongoing importance of activism and advocacy, as well as continued research into treatments. The second, powerfully depicted through footage of protestors scattering the ashes of their loved ones who had died from AIDS on the lawns of the White House, and of speeches by and interviews with beautifully eloquent, passionate and brave men and women, is the human race’s vast capacity for love, and will to survive. This is the message that will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Words: Jack Casey