How To Survive a Plague – Review
Though zombie plagues have been infecting screens both big and small this year, David France’s documentary is about an altogether more sinister and upsetting epidemic—the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s, and the wave of homophobia, judgement and denial that quickly followed. Focusing solely on the frontline in America, and more specifically New York, France unearths a staggering amount of archival footage to take us inside the meeting rooms of Act Up, the gay activist group that took on drug companies, the church and George Bush himself in an attempt to change perspectives and save lives.
With its grainy footage from police protests and underground drug trials, How To Survive A Plague is as rough and ready as Act Up’s origins, but utterly bewitching. The facts alone horrify. In 1987, 50,000 people had died from AIDS worldwide. By 1989, AIDS was the leading cause of death in men under the age of 44 in cities like New York, and in 1995 alone, eight million people worldwide were dying from the disease.
“It’s like living in a war,” says activist Peter Staley, whose clear, rational voice rings over the din of political naysayers. “All around me friends are dropping dead.” It’s hard to recall such a time, though it was only 20 years ago, and Plague effectively captures that period of horror, confusion and outrage, while offering a hopeful coda that can’t help but move. Alongside other ‘gay’ documentaries like Before Stonewall, this is shocking, essential viewing.