How To Survive A Plague - DVD Review

'sacrifices contemporary analysis for dramatic impetus'

David France's Oscar-nominated documentary, How To Survive A Plague, about the central figures of AIDS activism in the 1980s, paints a picture of heroes as potent as any superhero film. The challenge facing Peter Staley and others is not one where they can face down a large and looming physical villain but one where they must conquer a debilitating disease, whilst collectively rallying the troops to face the masses of corporate medical and politics, two groups not renowned for their communicative expertise or transparency.

France's film keeps the warm heart of its story hidden until the closing moments and thus sacrifices contemporary analysis for dramatic impetus. This is less reflective analysis from a position of some AIDS respite, more historical document, charting and organising footage from the years of the unfolding activist movement, as groups like Act Up! and TAG give disease sufferers, firstly, a collective voice and secondly, some scientific and political power.

There's very little arguing that people like Staley and Bob Rafsky - who literally shouts soon-to-be-President Clinton down and almost single-handedly makes AIDS a political issue - and many, many more did a huge amount for their cause at this point and beyond and France's film is the dedication that they deserve.

What it isn't however, is wholly successfully documentary, exactly because France seems to want to keep his focus so narrow and his sources and contributors so limited. How To Survive A Plague could have benefited from a wealth of modern day knowledge and maybe even a look at modern day activism, if France wanted to provide a wider context, but instead he chooses to force his contributors back to some dark times and his film suffers for it.

In praise of France's approach, he does appear honest when dealing with inter-group splits that fracture the cause but if the talking heads documentary is not dead (and I don't think it is) then it does at least need to show itself a whole lot more willing to invent than this.




How To Survive A Plague is released in the UK on DVD on Monday 31st March.


By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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