Thursday, January 10, 2013

For Your Consideration: How to Survive a Plague

So Oscar season has finally commenced (as evidenced by one of my favorite elements--the composition of Alisa's Oscar Menu), and as usual, I haven't seen as many nominated films as I should.

But I did catch How to Survive a Plague last night, and I think its content, if not its form, is worthy of Best Documentary Feature gold. The doc's title, as Jonathan points out, is a little misleading, as its focus is not on the macro issues of managing the AIDS crisis in the late twentieth century (largely leaving out issues such as worldwide infection issues, patients of color, and infected women), but rather the micro--the history of ACT UP, a subversive AIDS activist group that used guerilla tactics to raise awareness and deliver experimental drugs to patients who were dying at apocalpytic rates. And at this, How to Survive a Plague is masterful.

The documentary follows the lead provacateurs of ACT UP (some you might recognize--playwright Larry Kramer and artist Ray Navarro, and others you might not, like Bob Rafsky and Mark Harrington) as they stage massive and visually spectacular protests at the National Institute of Health, various drug companies, and the streets of New York and Washington DC in order to call attention to the lack of funding for AIDS research in the 80s and early 90s. While the protestors' flair for embodying the rage and grief they felt at the unspeakable loss the virus was wreaking (a large group scattered the ashes of their deceased loved ones over the White House lawn to call attention to President George Bush's inattention to the epidemic, for example), what is even more remarkable is their commitment to self-empowerment and education in the medical field.

With the help of retired chemist Iris Long, an American hero, the men and women of ACT UP wrote policy papers, researched drug trials, and shepherded experimental treatments through the FDA approval process. They for all intents and purposes created an underground health care system that provided practical assistance and emotional hope to those who were being cruelly and lethally overlooked by the mainstream doctors and pharmacists. And what is almost miraculous is, it worked. Due largely to the untiring work of the men and women of ACT UP, the current class of protease inhibitors--the "Lazarus drug, as it brought the nearly dead back to life--have rendered AIDS (for those who can afford the protocol--a crucial but little remarked upon distinction) into a chronic condition rather than a death sentence. As well a a documentary about the AIDS epidemic, Plague is also a testament to how committed and sustained social activism can (and does) change the world.

How to Survive a Plague doesn't offer a particularly innovative way of telling its story, but its archival footage of early ACT UP meetings and protests is remarkable, and evidences that even as these people were dying, they felt compelled to record the bloody and passionate war they waged against not only AIDS, but a social system that at best ignored the problem, and at worst blamed the victims for their plight. What was even more remarkable to me was the joy and laughter that punctuated the strategy meetings, even as their comrades were physically, unmistakably, wasting away. As the ACT UP motto insists, "Silence = Death," and even during infighting, arrests, and inconceivable loss and grief, these brave, brilliant, and hopeful men and women never stopped shouting, and never believed they weren't worthy of being heard.

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