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How to Survive a Plague - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
How to Survive a Plague
Directing: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

I was too young to have witnessed any of the AIDS epidemic first-hand. The year it broke, I was four. I knew one person who was HIV positive in the eighties but didn't even know about it until the nineties. By the time protease inhibitors turned everything around, I was 20, coming out of the closet, and still a virgin.

The truth is, much of what made my coming out at that time even possible can be traced back to the activism going on completely unbeknownst to me at the time, as depicted in the stunner of a documentary, How to Survive a Plague. It's easy to zero in on the issue at the forefront of all those people's minds -- AIDS treatment -- but everything about what they were fighting against stemmed from homophobia. And I do mean everything.

Thank God director David France uses footage of the likes of George Bush and Jesse Helms sparingly. You can only hear someone say that AIDS is simply a behavioral issue and then command "Change your behavior!" so many times before you want to run up and tear the movie screen apart with your bare hands. They would just have effectively told the straight world to stop having sex. And the Catholic Church, issuing public statements against the use of condoms as "immoral." These are real people, they walk among us, they are the majority.

Or they were, anyway, back when no one wanted to acknowledge the gravity of the AIDS situation. This movie should be required viewing. It should be part of public school curriculum. Not even I knew the full story of how ACT UP truly moved this country forward; what are the chances that anyone ten years -- or more -- younger does? This is history no less vital than that of the holocaust. This was its own holocaust, and it claimed over 8 million lives worldwide by the mid-nineties.

How to Survive a Plague it separated into chapters by that information. In chronological order, a title card with a year appears with a ticking number of AIDS deaths by that point. This is sobering stuff, but as presented here, also not just compelling, but completely absorbing. It's almost invigorating, seeing original footage of change being effected by the people because the government refused. The majority of the film is composed of this original footage. Some of it is rattling; some of it gave me chills; some of it is deeply emotional.

I've never been able to truly imagine what it was like to live as an adult at that time, especially one who was either gay or had gay friends. This movie provides one of the most effective windows to it.

It starts around 1986, when ACT UP first coalesced. We follow their struggles through the late eighties and into the early nineties, right through their splintering and in-fighting. There's original footage of Larry Kramer blowing up at a bickering crowd that is especially haunting. Earlier footage of protesters dumping the ashes of their departed loved ones on the White House lawn proves that some actions are truly indelible.

There's a tired trend in Hollywood of "shaky camera syndrome," where the cinematographer runs along with the action to make you feel like you're there. Usually it just makes you either bored or nauseated. There's a lot of shaky camera work here, but for real-world reasons: the cinematographer really was in the middle of the action, and now we get some sense of what it was like to be there. There are several instances of this, and it's easy to get caught up in it.

What these people did was amazing. The reach their actions had, across time, generations and creeds, cannot be underestimated. This movie is one of the most effective records of it ever made, and it is not to be missed.

A small victory in the war against AIDS as depicted in HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE.

Overall: A
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