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How to Survive a Plague is an exceedingly engrossing documentary on the evolution of AIDS activism through ACT UP New York from the beginning of the AIDS crisis to today. Director David France and his editors Todd Woody Richman and Tyler H. Walk in an astounding feat must have gone through hundreds of hours of footage to put this together.

Activist Peter Staley being arrested while protesting.

Activist Peter Staley being arrested while protesting.

Recently shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature for the 85th Academy Awards, this film deserves every accolade available.Mostly told by Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, David Barr, Jim Eigo, Mark Harrington and archivally by Bob Rafsky (RIP), the film shows the how the ACT UP group and its TAG (Treatment Action Group) offshoot helped bring about change in governmental and drug company policy that without a doubt saved the lives of millions of AIDS/HIV infected individuals across the world. This is a story that NEEDS to be told, because in the face of governmental resistance at the highest levels (Presidents Reagan and Bush I, I’m talking to you two bastards), they persevered, took care of their own and made change possible. Willing to put everything on the line for their friends, partners and in many cases even their own lives, they achieved something that had been avoided by the very people who should have been taking care of them. Their efforts are among the most commendable to take place in the last century with regards to health care. It’s such a shame that it took a near holocaust to make it happen. Without the bravery of these folks, who knows what the gay communities, the world community at large and the face of AIDS/HIV would look like.

Activist Bob Rafsky confronts ten presidential candidate Bill Clinton about his positions on AIDS research funding.

Activist Bob Rafsky confronts then presidential candidate Bill Clinton about his positions on AIDS research funding.

The structure is one of the more intriguing aspects of the film. Told using archival footage interspersed with present-day interviews, director France also adds small clips from scientists working on the drugs that would eventually be used to help get this epidemic under control. Each time as the scientists deliver their monologues as to what they were doing and the progress they were making, more and more suspense was added as I waited to see what the outcome was, even though I knew what it was.

Here is director David France talking about the film.

This is one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve ever seen and even in a very strong year of documentaries, it should win the Oscar. This film exemplifies what filmmaking can be about – telling a story with the unbiased ability inform and the ability to change hearts and minds. This story is still pertinent today as AIDS/HIV still is a worldwide problem, but thanks to the people’s efforts captured in this film, it’s a lot more manageable.

This film could easily be a companion piece to David Weissman and Bill Weber‘s heartbreaking documentary We Were Here, which chronicles the impact of the AIDS crisis on the gay community of San Francisco. Seeing the personal impact this crisis had on this community is one of the more heartbreaking things I’ve seen on film.

we were here

How to Survive a Plague is streaming on Netflix and is available for purchase through Amazon and iTunes.

View the trailer here.

We Were Here is streaming on Netflix, Amazon (free with Prime membership) as well as iTunes.

View the trailer here.

Silence = Death. Act Up. Fight Back. Fight AIDS.

BTW – Jesse Helms was the biggest asshole ever.