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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 26, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 43
Inspiring AIDS documentary an awesome tale of heroism
Arts & Entertainment
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Inspiring AIDS documentary an awesome tale of heroism

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE
Now showing


As an award-winning journalist, David France has been covering the AIDS crisis for 30 years. His work in LGBT community papers, The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ, and New York magazine has spoken for itself for over three decades, his connection to people and their stories practically one-of-a-kind.

So it only makes sense that his documentary debut, How to Survive a Plague, ends up being maybe the definitive chronicle of this epidemic as well as the grassroots community organizations that blossomed across the country in response to it. This is the story of the fight against AIDS, against political and social indifference, about corporate and public indifference. It is the story of a group of fighters who knew there was a problem but hadn't the first clue what the correct first step was going to be, their only security the knowledge that said step had to happen right away or any chance to have previously silent voices heard might be lost forever.

That might be a bit of hyperbole on my part, but not by much. France looks at the rise of organizations like ACT UP out of New York's Greenwich Village with a clear eye and without a heavy hand, using copious amounts of source material - videos, news footage, photos, news clippings, etc. - to tell his tale. He lets the voices of those involved in the fight speak for themselves, everything propelling forward in a way that is kinetically enthralling. The documentary almost becomes something like a real-world ticking-clock political thriller a la Argo or All the President's Men, the film a mesmerizing descent down the rabbit hole that would be unbelievable if it wasn't all 100-percent true.

The whole story is here. Playwright Larry Kramer's incendiary speech that led to the birth of ACT UP. The first appearance of the pink triangle coupled with the slogan 'Silence = Death.' The approval of AZT by the FDA and its subsequent release, the most expensive drug ever to hit the open market. President Ronald Reagan labeling the disease 'Public Enemy No. 1,' but only after 20,000 Americans had died. Teenage activist Ryan White's death from AIDS at the age of 18. The formation of the Treatment Action Group (TAG) in 1992. Magic Johnson's stunning announcement that he was/is HIV-positive.

France weaves all of this material together brilliantly, and hearing the voices of those who were there when it happened is borderline staggering. More so is the haunting, emotionally powerful coda, when the surviving members of this fight who we've been following for the entire film finally make an appearance. Seeing them now had an awesome, almost magisterial impact upon me. How to Survive a Plague isn't just a great documentary - it's a great movie, period. Without a doubt, France's debut is one of the more profoundly inspiring efforts I've seen this year.

For an exclusive interview with director David France, go to www.sgn.org.

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