“Ninety-three through ’95 were the worst years,” says longtime AIDS activist David Barr near the close of How to Survive a Plague
. “And then we got lucky.” The sentiment captures the general feel of the nine-year battle that began with communal outrage and advocacy and then grew to inevitable in-fighting between splintered groups. What the members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, shared was an understanding of urgency and the political, ideological and bureaucratic bullshit delaying effective treatment, let alone a cure. Director David France is a reporter by trade, and he produces a near-seamless piece of long-form journalism by weaving together home video and broadcast footage to show the victories and inevitable missteps of ACT UP. What France presents is less a call to arms than a retrospective of the resourcefulness of a group that did far more than heckle politicians, even producing a medical glossary and comprehensive treatment plan at a time when neither was provided by a government institution. Few AIDS documentaries manage to balance both the pragmatism and personal cost of the uphill battle for effective AIDS research and treatment, and France does it with the right amount of sentiment and cold, hard statistics. In the end, How to Survive
effectively proves that, in the face of any profound loss, knowledge is power.
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