Picking up an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary earlier this year, David France’s directorial debut How to Survive a Plague finally makes its way to British cinemas, as a film all set to enlighten and distress audiences in equal measure. Though powerful and inspiring – this feature, documenting the immense struggle to find a cure of the AIDS virus, makes for bittersweet cinema, as a film bereft of any potentially happy ending. Though now a manageable condition, the millions who lost their lives ensure this piece remains poignant throughout and, ultimately, terribly upsetting.
Beginning in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic swept across the world, we see how this feared disease was once a guaranteed life sentence, without any medication to combat it, and more worryingly, with little signs of any scientific advancements. Predominantly affecting the gay and lesbian communities, the disease triggered homophobic behaviour amongst many, with vitriolic abuse and hostility coming from both politicians and religious crusaders alike. However this sparked those affected to hit back – as militant activist groups such as ACT UP and TAG were born. An innovative and audacious movement began, with campaigners such as Larry Kramer and Bob Rafsky fighting for effective treatment – almost in a race against time, as millions upon millions continued to lose their lives across the course of this impassioned battle.
How to Survive a Plague makes for an inspirational piece of cinema, and one so cinematic in its conviction. The best screenwriters in the world would struggle to depict monologues and arguments amongst people with such emphatic intensity and emotion. It’s disquieting and moving, as some of the key players within this whole debacle, the big personalities who illuminate the screen, sadly didn’t survive. It’s poignant because you become so engulfed in this narrative and so taken with this story, that it’s very easy to view upon matters as being fictional. But it’s not, these people actually died.
It’s been incredibly well made too, as a real masterclass in documentary filmmaking. The way we weave in and out of interviews and archival footage is effective, ensuring this story is told with as much emotional punch as possible. There is a surprising wealth of footage too – with some of the most intimate moments captured, and now immortalised on screen. France has thankfully told this story chronologically, which not only helps in regards to the context of the piece, but as we build towards the finale we feel as though we’ve suffered with these people, as for the vast amount of the film they’re without any sense of hope, unable to see light at the end of this seemingly never-ending tunnel. Had we jumped around we would lose that arduous sense of time.
There is also a technique implemented whereby France has a ticker on the side of the screen, recounting how many people have died from AIDS as we progress towards the latter stages, with an alarming increase every time it shows. This adds to the suspenseful nature of the film, as you become aware at the fact that the longer it takes for medication to be discovered, the more and more people die. However it is this very technique which does provide the film with its one real downfall – in how France can be accused of being overly dramatic at times.
The subject matter is naturally heartbreaking and there is no need for the emotional manipulation that ensues, as given the themes at play, it’s not like we need to be nudged in that regard, and a more subtle, gentle approach would be beneficial. That said, it’s hugely important to document these people’s tireless hard work and spirit. They didn’t ever stop believing, and it’s crucial that those of a younger generation are able to witness and appreciate exactly what these people managed to achieve.