How to Survive a Plague

By Alejandra Garcia-Pletsch


In an inspiring and heartbreaking 129 minutes, director
David France chronicles the story of two groups of activists
whose work turned AIDS from a death sentence into a livable
condition. How to Survive a Plague chronicles the work
of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), two colorful
and improbable groups of individuals fighting a battle to
end the AIDS crisis. Compiling coverage
from nearly twenty years of filming,
the documentary takes us year-by-year,
beginning in 1987, when there was little
to no focus on the epidemic.
Located in the heart of New York
City’s eclectic Greenwich Village, ACT
UP and TAG congregated at weekly
meetings as support groups for the gay
and lesbian community to strategize
their course of action. At the beginning
of the documentary, the groups direct
their focus at the lack of support from
the government and health care industry.
Many thought that a cure was being
purposely hidden from the hundreds
of thousands of Americans affected
by AIDS. Evidence that better treatment
options existed in other countries
inspires very powerful scenes of these
activists protesting outside of FDA headquarters
and other governmental buildings.
“Health care is a right, health care is
a right,” they chanted, as they were aggressively removed and
assaulted by police officers and anti-gay groups.
Throughout the film, scenes from the groups’ protests and
demonstrations place the viewer in the midst of the era. From
“kiss-ins” to staging protests outside of government buildings,
hospitals, and churches, we see that the work of these
activists will not end until their mission has been fulfilled. We
see powerful messages like “silence=death” and “fight AIDS,
fight back” plastered all over the activists’ signs and bodies.
We see bodies being trampled by police officers, people being
physically removed from the demonstrations responsible for
putting the AIDS crisis on the radar for the entire country.
Throughout the film, the death toll of the number of
lives taken by AIDS scrolls across the screen. Rapidly increasing
as the years recounted progress, the desperation for a
treatment that works becomes even more imperative. With
the prices for the only available medications at the time skyhigh,
stopping the vicious killer was close to impossible. A
decent society does not just put people out to pasture and
die because they’ve done a human thing. The heroic actions
of this improbable group of people moved everyone in the
theatre to tears.
The film is not only the story of a disease; but also the
story of a movement. Plague conveys the story of a movement
of people who refused to sit idly and accept their disease
as their executioner. One of the movement’s key activists,
Peter Staley, stated that living with
AIDS during the 1980s was like living
in a battlefield. “I’m going to die from
this,” Staley commented, “it’s like living
in a war, all around me friends are dropping
dead.” In an emotional interview,
another woman stated that she has no
friends who she has known longer than
five years, blaming this misfortune on
the rapid spread of AIDS. Although
these fighters accepted the probable fate
that they would not survive to see an
end, the community of LGBT activists
never lost hope.
Through the telling of personal
stories, the viewer develops a connection
with the victims of the epidemic.
Documenting the same individuals over
the course of 20 years, Plague evokes
strong emotions of grief as we watch the
lives of many fighters deteriorate as the
years pass. In an incredibly memorable
scene, we see one of the activists in his
final days of life. Remaining positive and hopeful even though
the disease had already consumed his body, he speaks of his
dreams for all of his friends to have the opportunity to live as
complete of a life as he did. In the end of the film, the viewer is
presented with many familiar faces—faces of those who never
dreamt that they would live to see a treatment that worked.
With greying hair and wrinkles to boast, many of these young
men and women who were wholeheartedly responsible for
the AIDS revolution are still here to tell their story.
The strong presence of AIDS awareness today makes it
easy to forget about the fight that led to where the movement
currently stands. Although the crisis is by no means over,
there are various treatment options available to enable HIV
positive individuals to live long, fulfilling lives. The progression
of these treatments is without a doubt a result of the
hard work performed by these heroic individuals for the past
25 years. An extremely important film about an extremely
important era, How to Survive a Plague is both inspiring and

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