“I came out at age 40.  It was very bad timing to come out in the middle of an epidemic.  The question is, what does a decent society do with people who hurt themselves because they are human; who smoke too much, who eat too much, who drive carelessly, who don’t have safe sex?  I think the answer is that a decent society does not put people out to pasture and let them die because they’ve done a human thing.” 

Bob Rafsky, How To Survive A Plague


Hollywood loves an underdog.   

When Matthew McConaughey deservedly won the 2013 Best Actor Oscar for his barnstorming performance as homophobic AIDS-suffering cowboy drug dealer Ron Woodruff it must have been a bittersweet moment for director David France who covered the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the start and whose brilliant, angry documentary, How To Survive A Plague, about HIV/AIDS activist group ACT UP, missed out on the Best Documentary Oscar the year before.* 

The message is clear.  Hollywood loves an underdog.  Especially a fictionalised cowboy.  Just not a real-life butt cowboy.  The reality of AIDS activism just isn’t as neat and heteronormative as Dallas Buyers Club and the Academy, shamefully, would prefer. 

Assembled from over 700 hours of contemporary interviews and archive footage and dedicated to his partner whom he lost to AIDS-related pneumonia, France’s film charts the heroic efforts of HIV/AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), and it’s eventual splinter group TAG (Treatment Action Group), to raise HIV/AIDS awareness and fight for the rights of people living with the virus during the years when the epidemic burnt brightest through direct action – protests, demonstrations, conferences, sit-ins at big pharma corporations – debating with politicians like Bill Clinton and right-wing demagogue Pat Buchanan, inflaming the likes of Jesse Helm, being ignored by Reagan and Bush, invading New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to protest against the reactionary Cardinal O’Connor during Sunday Mass, being beaten with billyclubs by mounted policeman in, of all places, San Francisco, battling prejudice, working to empower patients and ultimately playing an instrumental role in the development of the triple-drug combination therapies that have since saved millions.  

How To Survive A Plague also isn’t afraid to portray the internecine conflict that eventually took it’s toll on the movement, showing how internal ACT UP meetings became split between hardcore activists determined to preserve their integrity outside the mainstream and the more realistic and scientific-minded efforts of the group’s Treatment And Data Committee who believed in working with scientists, researchers and policy makers to develop new HIV therapies and eventually were forced to split off and form TAG.  The moment when playwright and leading activist Larry Kramer cuts through the strife and cat-calling during one meeting by furiously shouting: “Plague!  We are in the middle of a fucking plague!  And you act like this?” is sobering and electric, a disappointed parent chastising misbehaving children.   

Above all however, How To Survive A Plague portrays true, ordinary, everyday heroism, people living with a (then) death sentence, aided by their families, friends and supporters, steadfastly refusing to go quietly into that good night, fighting tooth and nail for their, and our, survival. 

And that’s what How To Survive A Plague is about – it’s about surviving, it’s about changing the world and it’s about never forgetting the people we lost along the way.   

“This fight isn’t over until all of us are safe!”


Bob Rafsky, 47, died 1993


VERDICT: [rating=4]


*How To Survive A Plague lost out on the 2012 Best Documentary Oscar not to Kirby Dick’s searing exposé of sexual assault in the US military The Invisible War or Dror Moreh’s complex portrait of Israel’s Internal Security Service Shin Bet or Emad Burmat and Guy Davidi’s quietly furious indictment of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, 5 Broken Cameras.  How To Survive A Plague lost out on the 2012 Best Documentary Oscar to the saccharine, feel-good fluff of Searching For Sugar Man.  Hollywood loves an underdog…    


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