DVD review: “How to Survive a Plague”

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It’s probably not surprising that David France’s Oscar-nominated film “How To Survive a Plague” didn’t win Sunday night. Oscar voters tend to gravitate towards straightforward and relatively safe subject matter when honoring documentaries, and they had a great example in “Searching for Sugar Man.”

But I hope the attention brought upon by the Oscar nomination will bring more people to see “Plague,” which is out on DVD today and streaming for free on Netflix Instant. Because while it is a devastatingly sad portrait of how the AIDS epidemic ravaged the gay community in America, it’s also just as hopeful and inspiring as “Sugar Man.”

That’s because France focuses on ACT UP (and a later offshoot, TAG), a dedicated group of activists who kept up the pressure on the government, health officials and the pharmaceutical industry to hunt for a cure. In the 1980s, the task seemed hopeless, as the activists met a wall of indifference masking outright homophobic hostility, and an undercurrent that said gay people brought the plague on themselves.

Watch an episode of “Crossfire” featuring Pat Buchanan trying to goad activist Peter Staley into basically warning young people against being gay. Staley turns the tables, asking Buchanan which was preferable, thousands of dead people or gay people having safe sex. Buchanan clumsily dodges the question. Today he’s considered a crank, but in 1987 he was disturbingly close to the mainstream.

But ACT UP kept up, with public demonstrations (sheathing Jesse Helms’ home in a 35-foot-tall condom was a nice bit of media catnip), and private cajoling. The activists became experts on politics, on the law, and most importantly on science, and with their knowledge and persistence eventually got themselves invited into the labs to help researchers identify the most promising strains.

When the breakthrough finally comes in 1996, it’s a triumphant moment, but also a sad one; how many more could have been saved if the government hadn’t turned a blind eye for years? You see the survivor’s guilt in the eyes of the activists during present-day interviews: “Like any war, you wonder why you were the one that got to come home,” Staley says.

Aside from those interviews, France relies on never-before-seen archival footage of rallies and Greenwich Village strategy meetings to tell the story of ACT UP. He gets into the nitty gritty of scientific research, and of the complex nature of grassroots organizing, as factions develop and the group runs the risk of turning on each other in moments of despair.

But this is a story, if not of unvarnished triumph, then at least of perseverance, and a model for other grassroots movements facing their own seemingly unbreachable walls.

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