DVD Review: How to Survive a Plague

David France's Oscar-nominated documentary about AIDS activists is "both fascinating and poignant."

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

It’s a mixed up, shook up world we live in, filled with crappy people and even crappier networks of ideology. In the midst of such a depressing cultural milieu, it can be difficult to remember that the voices of average, well-meaning people have a role in the course of major events, and in case you’ve been needing a reminder lately, Oscar-nominated documentary How To Survive a Plague is here to help. Currently available on DVD from Sundance Selects, Plague unfortunately failed to land the Oscar for Best Documentary over the weekend, but that’s no reason not to rush out immediately to Best Buy and score a copy.

Mainly cut together from recovered VHS footage, Plague tells the story of the early AIDS epidemic in the U.S. during the 1980s, and the total failure of the decade’s Republican-dominated Federal government to respond in any meaningful way to the crisis. AIDS was initially viewed as an exclusively gay disease, and thanks to rampant and brazen homophobia, callous Moral Majority types found it easy to brush it aside. Thanks to the American government’s lack of early response, AIDS would eventually expand to become a global epidemic, affecting both straight and gay communities, and claiming tens of millions of lives.

How to Survive a Plague

Plague focuses on the efforts of early policy advocates at ACT UP, a grassroots protest organization that pushed for greater government culpability and less stringent FDA regulation of existing AIDS-related drugs. Such efforts by themselves are laudatory, but their success is particularly inspiring when contrasted against the openly sneering, dismissive attitude of public policymakers like Jesse Helms and George H.W. Bush; the latter politician suggested that gays concerned about AIDS should “change their behavior,” and the former, more brusquely, opined that they should “shut their mouths” and “keep their personal business to themselves.”

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Amidst such crass and dehumanizing rhetoric, early AIDS activists were relentless and vocal. When President Bush declined to attend a CDC conference on AIDS treatment options, ACT UP representatives led the entire assembled committee in an anti-Bush protest chant on national television. Later, during the final weeks of Bush’s re-election campaign, protesters appeared en masse in Washington and emptied dozens of containers of cremated human remains onto the White House lawn. Aside from such dramatic public displays, ACT UP and its constituents worked tirelessly to expand and consolidate unofficial research into AIDS treatment, and to revise FDA approval standards so that experimental drugs could be approved more quickly.

Sundance’s DVD includes a reel of deleted scenes and alternate audio with commentary by director David France and surviving ACT UP members Heidi Dorow, Joy Episalla, Bob Lederer and Ron Medley. As a historical document it’s both fascinating and poignant, butits real strength is as a chronicle – and as its title implies, a guidebook – for realizing the possibility of social change.


Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline and the writer of the weekly series Terror Cult. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby.