How to Survive a Plague

The Nominations:

  • Documentary Feature

The Black-and-White:

A review by moviegirl

I don’t know what life was like before antibiotics — when a tiny infection could bring down a whole household. I know how quickly Charlotte Palmer and her baby fled from Cleveland (the house, not the city) after Marianne Dashwood was declared to have an infection “of putrid tendency.” But to me, an infection has only ever been at most an unplesantness, quickly cured with medicine. I’ve never felt a rush of panic, of feeling like my life was at stake, when someone told me that I had, for example, strep throat.

I think my view of antibiotics must be similar to how the teens and twentysomethings of today think (or don’t think) about AIDS. The teens and twentysomethings of today have never lived in a world where an AIDS diagnosis was the equivalent of a death sentence the way it was when I was 16 and the first cases of what was then often identified as GRID first began to appear, and people were suddenly dying and nothing could stop it. The young people of today have only lived in a world where AIDS is — in developed countries, at least — chronic rather than fatal.

How to Survivor a Plague is the story of how AIDS was neutralized in the United States. Director David France chronicles the unrelenting efforts of ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group (TAG — formerly the Treatment & Data (T&D) committee of ACT UP) to drive the country to find an effective treatment for AIDS within 15 years of those first GRID deaths. It tells the story chronologically through archival footage, with little present-day narration.

The footage of the folks who were sick and dying is heartbreaking and shocking. The footage of the folks in charge is shocking in a different way. Almost everyone in the legislative and executive branches of the government comes out looking pretty bad, including some truly appalling behavior by the National Park Police — for example, striking an unarmed, out-of-shape middle-aged woman with a billy club after pinning her to a fence with a horse. I had forgotten just how bigoted and ignorant people like Jesse Helms, Ed Koch, and Pat Buchanan were, and how much the Catholic Church did to set back the fight against AIDS. Appalling.

I haven’t seen any of the other nominees, so I have no idea whether this one will or should win as compared to the others. However, I do think the mark of a great documentary is how long it stays with you after it’s over. There is one moment in particular, when ACT UP activist Bob Rafsky is dancing with his daughter and you hear him saying in voice-over:

The question is: what does a decent society do with people who hurt themselves because they are human — who smoke too much, who eat too much, who drive carelessly, who don’t have safe sex? I think the answer is that a decent society does not put people out to pasture and let them die because they’ve done a human thing.

How to Survive a Plague is currently available streaming on Netflix. If you’re not old enough to have lived through that time when each of us knew people who had died of AIDS, and everyone we knew knew someone who had died of AIDS, it’s helpful to watch this documentary to really understand how dire the situation was, and how much was accomplished in such a short time because people stood up and demanded that we behave like a decent society. I have friends who survive today because of the efforts of these groups and everyone else who worked to stop this plague in its tracks. I’m so glad that someone has memorialized their story.

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