Whilst the majority of feature-length documentaries often contain the usually expected talking heads interviews, visual graphics and charts, beautiful landscape shots and a dramatic musical score a handful of filmmakers dare to break this now conventional mold. David France’s 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague” is one such example of this maverick approach to telling factual stories for audiences. Depicting the background of 1980’s America during the AIDS crisis France carefully selects footage shot on video cameras from the actual time by gay activists and the news media. Although one could argue that the final result is not so much France’s work as it is the efforts of others it is in the way he presents this story that makes the real content so intriguingly haunting.
During the 80’s America’s political institutions seemed to be in chaos over the growing health epidemic that would later be known as AIDS. Then-President Ronald Regan himself would not publicly discuss the issue until 1985, many years after its discovery whilst the right-wing ideology that was engulfing the Western world at the time did great damage to limit the progress needed in championing not only treatment but also the negative social attitudes to HIV/AIDS itself. However hope was present in the passionate work of gay activists such as Larry Kramer, Peter Staley, Spencer Cox and hundreds more citizens, scientists, politicians and doctors. Plague is the perfect insight into this turbulent world as we witness the continuing struggle of countless people infected by the HIV/AIDS virus.
France’s biased and careful editing of 80’s footage, interview segments from individuals taken at the time, as well as some brief footage from the modern day all combine wonderfully to paint a sympathetic but also pragmatical piece of cinema. No doubt this is the effect the director wanted for us as participants but taking emotional bias out of the equation France actually sheds some light on a few of the rather more murky details that underscored this era. Although the early 90’s would bring about a slew of LGBT themed films with such notable examples being “And the Band Played On” and “Philadelphia” (both 1993) that champion gay rights Plague actually reveals the inner workings of institutions such as the FDA and the struggles that gay activists had to endure in order to bring about change. And what is truly haunting about the film is in the way it depicts those that were unfortunate enough to have been killed by the disease before any chance of hope began to shine.
You are left slightly drained as you finish watching Plague and to that extent David France has done a masterful job of tugging on your heartstrings. What stays with you however is the overall sadness of just how different the world was only a few decades ago. It is horrifyingly painful to see young gay men and women from a different time having abuse hurled at them constantly with bigotry and discrimination just becoming regular parts of their daily life. The fact that progress towards HIV treatment came about only through a chance encounter by doctors in the mid 1990’s only goes to show how such little resources were given to the organizations trying hard to make progress. The social attitudes of the disease and the way in which its victims were treated is a terrifying look into a world that has changed greatly over the years. Although HIV/AIDS is still a very large and very real danger for men and women in today’s world Plague offers you an uncompromising portrait of the people whose lives were affected by one of the worst diseases known to mankind. The social and political landscape that is revealed in France’s craftsmanship makes for very uncomfortable viewing at times but the important message of never giving up and fighting for a cause that many reject makes for fantastic storytelling and humble appreciation that the next generation didn’t have to fight or fear as much.