Directed by David France, How to Survive a Plague uses astonishingly abundant archival footage to document the explosion of HIV within the gay community in the US and the resulting devastating impact of AIDs. 

Most significantly it’s a powerful portrayal of how this community fought back during the late 80s and 90s.

Faced with little knowledge about the disease, an uncaring government and bureaucratic drug research policies, the terrified gay community reacted to the crisis with anger and revolutionary zeal. The organisation Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was born.

As thousands and then hundreds of thousand began to die, Act Up took on the job of not only demanding action from the government and pharmaceutical companies, but also embarked on becoming experts in every aspect of HIV/AIDS – from medical research to the intricacies of government and corporate red tape.

In doing so, Act Up pioneered combining controversial and media-savvy guerrilla protest tactics with compelling arguments and effective lobbying; an approach that went on to be used by more recent groups, such as the Treatment Action Campaign here in South Africa.

What makes the Oscar-nominated Plague riveting, however, is not its documenting of the organisation and the historic events of the time but its depiction of the lives of the desperate but inspired people behind them.

These young activists were not just courageously fighting for a righteous cause but were also literally in the midst of a battle for their very survival. Most were themselves infected with the virus which was, at the time, a death sentence.

This growing sense of impending doom among the remarkable people we get to meet and know in Plague is the most affecting aspect of the film. You watch as time runs out. You see their health deteriorate as they speculate heartbreakingly about when their turn will come. To some extent, gay men in the US almost faced extinction.

As the film reaches its climax, which includes the inevitable splintering of the group and then the almost miraculous development of ARV drugs, you also desperately wonder who will make it out alive. The conclusion is tearfully inspiring.

Few movies offer such a dramatic true-life portrayal of the potential power, intelligence and humanity at the core of our gay communities. Despite its moments of deep sadness and despair, How to Survive a Plague is ultimately an uplifting and hopeful film.

It reminded me a little of Vito, the documentary about American gay film writer Vito Russo (screened at the Out in Africa film festival last year).  That’s in part due to the fact that Russo was involved with Act Up (although he’s absent in this film), but mostly because they offer compelling historical views of LGBT activism.

Amidst the search for consensus within our own very fractured South African LGBT activist community, both these films are timely reminders of the impact that activists can have in the world, and offer the useful distance of time in order to put their efforts, and perhaps, most importantly, our own today, into perspective.

How to Survive A Plague is one of the many documentaries being screened at the 15th Encounters SA International Documentary Festival, from 6 to 16 June at the Bioscope in Johannesburg and at Nu Metro V&A Waterfront and The Fugard in Cape Town. Click here for more.

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