[DOCUMENTARY REVIEW] A devastating plague, and the activists who fought against it


“How to Survive a Plague” features many activists, including Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, and Bob Rafsky, who fought for research against the AIDS epidemic.

Filled with a surplus of information and also strong emotions, How to Survive a Plague depicts the story of the AIDS epidemic and the rise of the AIDS-activist movement ACT UP. The documentary shows the strenuous efforts that were needed in order to push for affordable treatment for the disease. AIDS was killing millions of people worldwide, and people weren’t recognizing it as an epidemic because of the stigma surrounding it. This documentary conveyed the strong desperation, fear, and determination of the gay community during the peak of the AIDS epidemic; it was immersive and really well done.

Regardless of whether you were alive in 1987—when ACT UP was founded—David France covers the stress and anger of the activists in a way where you can’t but understand their emotions. All of the ACT UP activists were so full of life, but not one of them believed that they’d survive. Looking back on it now, and seeing a lot of them older, alive, and healthy, proves how their work came to fruition. France went through over 700 hours of footage, and recorded nearly 100 hours of original interviews with prominent activists from the time period, making the movie jam packed with heart wrenching excerpts.

You still don’t feel like you’re being spoon-fed information. You truly feel like you’re part of it and are simply recalling past memories.”

I believe that this film is a really good way to learn about how tough the epidemic was to live through, but you still don’t feel like you’re being spoon-fed information. You truly feel like you’re part of it and are simply recalling past memories. France was a journalist that had been covering AIDS for a very long time, and this film verifies his mastery of the subject. It covers all angles—especially the people that were against the movement. Ronald Reagan, President George Bush, New York Mayor Ed Koch, and John Cardinal O’Connor were all given coverage. Not one side is left unheard. If someone from 50 years in the future who had somehow never even heard of AIDS were to watch this documentary, they’d comfortably understand the most significant and vital aspects of ACT UP and the people who opposed it.

At a protest in Washington DC, they spilled the ashes of their loved ones on the White House lawn. The act worked, and garnered lots of publicity. The leaders of ACT UP were unbelievably resilient and stubborn; they forced scientists into filling them in with the research meetings, leading to the speeding up of the clinical trials.

Their strength saved the day. Scientific breakthroughs were created: combination therapies and protease inhibitors. The number of AIDS related deaths decreased by 50 percent in New York, and ACT UP is to thank.

This film is a great one to watch to really learn about all ACT UP did for the movement, and how revolutionary they really were. They were loud, stubborn, and demanding. And it resulted in saved lives. Despite being opposed by many, they were remarkable, and will be a big part of history.

How to Survive a Plague won the Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Documentary, and has a rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.