Sunday, November 3, 2013

'How to Survive a Plague' (2012) directed by David France ★★★★

In the 1980s, Greenwich Village was hit by a plague: AIDS.  A plague feels like something that only happens in history books; the word conjuring images of miserable peasants wheeling carts stacked with pale, bony bodies through medieval streets.  Yet "plague" absolutely the right word; a community decimated by a mysterious, horrific disease; sufferers scrabbling desperately for any possible cure; the bodies of the dead hurled into trash bags and quickly burned.

It's an understatement to say that this isn't the cheeriest film you'll watch all year.  But though we're shown a community undergoing apocalypse, we also see them join together into an astonishing protest group fuelled by equal parts rage and grief. This is Act Up, a protest group made up of and representing AIDS victims, publicising their struggle, fighting for effective treatment and acting as a cudgel to beat down anyone that would rather these people just curl up and die quietly and without a fuss.

It's difficult to imagine a better argument for direct action than How to Survive a Plague, and it's similarly difficult to imagine a more personal fight for a protest group.  These people are literally fighting for their lives, the seriousness of their fight all too palpable as they invade pharmaceutical companies, heckle and harangue people in power and stage incredibly moving 'stunts'.  The most striking of these is when a procession of partners and parents whose loved ones have died of AIDS empty their ashes out onto the White House lawn, directly implicating the calcified political structure in their death.  These people have their backs against the wall: an educated and motivated protest group with no fear of arrest is a dangerous thing.  

The documentary is largely composed of contemporaneous camcorder footage, showing the fractious and furious Act Up meetings.  The meetings and protests are documented with fastidious precision, you feel a shiver of dread when you realise a lot of these people expect to die very soon and this record might be all that's left of them.  This camcorder footage has the effect of placing the viewer firmly within the Act Up movement, viewing the meetings from the perspective of an attendee, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the demonstrators as the billy clubs of the police thump down on those around you.  

Interweaved with this are footage from news broadcasts and television programmes, showing us Act Up's media presence and common attitudes to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.  We watch as the position of politicians on HIV/AIDS evolves from merely paying lip service to the ill to being a central campaign issue in Presidential debates.   Retrospective interviews are largely kept to a minimum and the film avoids too much historicising, directorial choices giving this war an immediacy. 

Audience immersion in this struggle makes the film both sad and ghoulishly suspenseful. Practically all of the people we meet are existing under a death sentence.  The events documented in How to Survive a Plague spans a decade, so over the two hour run time we watch people getting sicker and sicker, their faces ever more stained with sarcomas as they accelerate towards an early grave.  Horrifying as this process is, you understand that this is a distant simulation of what it was like to be a gay man in Greenwich Village in 1980s, watching your friends and lovers growing sicker and dying off one by one.  This is shown with unflinchiny clarity  - you'd have to be a stone cold psychopath not to be moved as a young artist explains to a camera that he's going to be deaf and blind for the rest of his short, painful life.

There are moments in How to Survive a Plague that showcases a fury rare to cinema.  As the death toll rises, frustrations build within Act Up and their solidarity began to fracture.  In one utterly furious moment, activist Larry Kramer shuts down a heckler quibbling over a point of order with an extraordinarily passionate argument that culminates in him yelling "this is a fucking plague!".  Similarly shiver-inducing is Peter Staley's speech to an international AIDS conference in San Francisco where he  precisely and emotively lays out the mindset of the Act Up protest group to the scientific community.  

But above all this, it's the arguments and footage of Robert Rafsky that touches deepest. At times he seems to be converting his illness into pure fury, though this anger is leavened with a domestic portrait; home footage of him playing with his young daughter, watching her grow up as he grows sicker and sicker.  When a fellow activist dies, the man's funeral becomes a powerful protest, the body being marched through the streets towards the campaign headquarters of George Bush.  In the rain Rafsky makes a speech that's equal parts sheer misery and righteous anger, impossibly eloquent words spilling out into a dark and rainy New York night.

How to Survive a Plague functions as both education documentary and compelling narrative, showing us Act Up from genesis to conclusion.  There's a tight focus on certain personalities within the movement,events experienced purely from their point of view. One consequence of this is a slight myopia - I would have appreciated knowing more about the various points of view and factions within the group.  An additional quibble is the revelation late in the film that the drugs Act Up were fighting for access to are next to useless in fighting the disease, but then it's hardly the film-makers fault that reality doesn't conforms to a satisfying story.

The story concludes with the development of effective antiretroviral drugs, not a cure for HIV/AIDS, but a treatment that allows sufferers to lead a long and relatively healthy life. The drastic recovery of the afflicted is referred to as 'the Lazarus effect'.  Seeing this in the men and women we've come to know is moving, though their survival is a contrasted with those that practically died in front of us.  How to Survive a Plague isn't a pleasant watch, yet as cinema it's visceral and as politics it's vital: an instruction manual for effective, direct political action.

It would also make a great double feature with the excellent Fire in the Blood, which picks up right about where How to Survive a Plague concludes, showing us the politics and economics of distributing antiretrovirals in Africa.

How to Survive a Plague is released November 8th.

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