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HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE (director/writer: David France; screenwriters: T. Woody Richman /Tyler H. Walk; cinematographer: Derek Wiesehahn; editors: T. Woody Richman/Tyler H. Walk/Jonathan Oppenheim; music: Stuart Bogie/Luke O’Malley/with songs by Arthur Russell; cast: Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Iris Long, Mark Harrington, Spencer Cox, Bob Rafsky; Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Howard Gertler/David France; Sundance Selects/IFC Films; 2012)

Compelling, important and inspiring documentary about the fight against AIDS.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Compelling, important and inspiring documentary about the fight against AIDS that’s helmed by veteran journalist David France. It tellsof how two activist groups, ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), found ways to infiltrate the pharmaceutical industry when no cure was envisioned down the road due to institutional indifference and, though not people of science, these groups helped identify promising new drugs that were delivered to patients in record time and thereby saved countless lives. The documentary uses archival video footage from the 1980s and ’90s, never-before-seen, to allow us to see how these controversial groups operated as we witness both their heartbreaking failures and thrilling successes.

The Act-Up group, under playwright Larry Kramer’s militant stance, gets most of the film time. Act-Up emerged in New York’s stricken 1987 gay community, and these media savvy activists were no longer willing to politely wait for possible promised treatment options and be bullied by a hostile arrogant Mayor Koch and a condom adverse advocating reactionary like Gotham’s Cardinal O’Connor and openly challenged and mocked their resistance. TAG, an offshoot of Act Up, was founded by Peter Staley, a formerly closeted Wall Street bond trader with H.I.V. who left his job to do battle with the system as an advocate of getting the medicines needed from giant pharmaceutical companies like Merck. Both group’s intense fight led to new drugs by1996that slowed down the deaths, even if unfortunately by then millions had already died. The result is that seven companies today manufacture life-saving AIDS drugs.

The no-nonsense documentary is fashioned together in a coherent and meaningful way, and passionately captures the overwhelming rage and fear of that historical period played out mainly in America’s large cities with big gay populations.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”