HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE - Now On DemandSeptember 29, 2012


IFC Films

On Demand Weekly provides new movie reviews of hot movies on demand from the POV of watching from the comfort of your home. Today’s review: HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE (IFC Films).

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Unbridled activism creates palpable results… the story of ACT UP
By Cynthia Kane


This is a story about America. Our America. It’s a part of our recent history and a story that many of us think we know. But HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE tells us a mostly unknown, untold story about ordinary young men and women who took on this deadly virus and those passive and uninterested in saving lives. Without any forethought or hindsight, they became extraordinary, radical and impassioned warriors and thus changed the course of history.

They are responsible for saving untold number of lives. As we still have no cure for HIV/AIDS, their results, discoveries and activity toward saving lives continue today here in the US and internationally, especially in the extremely hard-hit African continent.

The young men, mostly HIV-positive and knowing they were facing death in the eye, created ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, joined quickly by others, other men and women some with HIV and some not, progressive-thinking, doctors, even a retired scientist-come-homemaker, who felt she couldn’t sit back and watch. ACT UP is still going strong and more recently has hooked up with the Occupy Movement. Interesting, because on my first viewing of this remarkable documentary, I thought immediately,


anyone involved with Occupy should

see HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE and learn how to do it right.

There’s a lot to learn from these courageous men and women and from their spin-off coalition, TAG (Treatment Action Group). Via their own chutzpah, intelligence, innovated ideas, seizing their right to assemble and demonstrate, they fought Washington (a Washington where neither left nor right really “got it”) and the medical establishment through many dark and difficult years, losing many of their brave fellow warriors in death from AIDS along the way. They demanded better and better research and experimental treatments, pushing the scientists particularly in the pharmaceutical community to achievements never thought possible. They weren’t afraid to change course and admit to certain fallbacks when their first big breakthrough in fighting HIV/AIDS, AZT didn’t prove to be the miracle cure they hoped for.

Through rarely seen archival footage –collected from over 30 sources, shot on early camcorders used to document the fight, as well as news footage interwoven with present day interviews, journalist David France in his documentary directorial debut, takes us back to those turbulent days through the mid-80s and the 90s, from the birth of ACT UP only a few years after AIDS became part of the national lexicon. ACT UP was essentially born at the Lesbian and Gay Services Center in Greenwich Village, New York City when Larry Kramer was asked to speak about focused action to fight AIDS. Supposedly Kramer posed a question to the audience: "Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?" The answer was "a resounding yes." Approximately 300 people met two days later to form ACT UP. 



From 1981 when there were 41 deaths from AIDS, by 1987, the virus had claimed over a half-million lives worldwide. We follow Kramer and others, including Peter Staley (emerging as a major spokesperson and the break-out hero in this tale) a former bond trader who when he was diagnosed with HIV, gave up all to become a fulltime activist; Mark Harrington who spearheaded ACT UP’s influential Treatment and Data Committee using computer data significantly to prove through metrics, Bob Rafsky, a loving father and husband who came out at age 40 and used his expertise in PR to bring HIV/AIDS into the spotlight and famously interlocked with Bill Clinton in a tumultuous clash during a campaign speech. As a result, Rafsky got the issue finally into the national debate in the 1992 Presidential.

Among others, Larry Kramer as feisty and eloquent as always appears then and now, as well as writer Jim Eigo and Iris Long, the homemaker who returned to science to fight back, fight AIDS.


Honestly, I could go on and on, but in short, see this film. It will be something I will show my children, nieces and nephews. It is a story of courage against all odds. It is a story of modern day heroism in these cynical days where there seems to be no real heroes. As a journalist, David France has followed this fight for 30 years and he proves he’s got the stuff and is the best person to tell the story, the best person to have made this film.
The film ends in that pivotal year, 1996 with the development of combination drug therapy (which included AZT with certain protease inhibitors which prolong its effectiveness), which continues to save lives. But by 1996, the death toll was precipitous: over 8 millions persons had lost their lives to AIDS. This victory to just control the virus wasn’t won without enormous cost. And we still don’t have a consummate cure. Many persons worldwide still have little or no access to these vital drugs. AIDS continues to kill.

HOW TO SURIVIVE A PLAGUE leaves us emotionally raw, but looking forward. It won’t be revealed here, but it’s worth the two hours for this ending. Or is it a coda? Whatever, it’s worth it.

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. A contender for the Oscars? I sincerely hope so…

demand it

- Cynthia Kane

Cynthia Kane reviews documentaries for On Demand Weekly. She is a writer and Sr Programming Manager for [ ITVS], overseeing the International Initiative for funding in their SF office. Prior she’s had many incarnations from actor to writer to producer. She co-created DOCday on Sundance Channel.


HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE (IFC Films) is now on demand.


Read Other Reviews By Cynthia Kane:








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