30 January 2014

How to Survive a Plague

Forget Dallas Buyers Club - and Matthew McConaughey's astonishing weight loss - for a minute. I haven't seen it yet. It's probably very good. But there's another Oscar-nominated film about HIV/AIDS that everyone should see. I saw it last night at (newly community-owned) Cube Microplex and I'm still thinking about it.

How to Survive a Plague (2012) may sound like a zombie movie, but it's actually an incredibly moving and important documentary about HIV/AIDS activists' tireless efforts during the 80s and 90s to obtain the drugs that would ultimately keep them alive.


The film is pieced together, and brilliantly edited, from footage of activist meetings and demos, and news coverage. I'm ashamed to say that before watching it, I didn't know anything about the influence that ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group) had on the development of the HIV/AIDS treatments that are available today. I'm glad I now know a little more. It's the most stunning example of what citizens can achieve by taking the principles and processes of science into their own hands. Activists used every resource available to them to learn about the drug development process, and to make it better. They took their fight to politicians and pharmaceutical companies and forced them to give them what they needed.

I would encourage everyone to see this film. It's not a feel good film. In parts, it's very difficult to watch. In one demonstration, activists carry the ashes of their loved ones to the White House and cast them on the lawn. Many of the activists died before the drugs that could have saved them became available. But director David France creates a beautiful balance of light and dark, contrasting harrowing hospital and funeral scenes with footage of family birthdays and activists stretching a giant condom over the home of senator Jesse Helms. Most of all, though, it's a story that needs to be told. Watch Dallas Buyers Club but also watch this.

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