Sunday, January 20, 2013

How to Survive a Plague (2012)

1 Nomination, Wins To Be Determined

Nomination: Best Documentary, Feature - David France and Howard Gertler

There have been many documentaries made about the AIDS crisis since the outbreak of the disease, including some truly stellar efforts, such as the well known Common Threads: STories from the Quilt.  These films have covered scores of different stories that have resulted from AIDS, but the superb How to Survive a Plague is the first I know of to tell successfully the story not just of the disease, but the early efforts by the brave members of ACT UP and other organizations to fight for increased research and access to crucial medications to battle AIDS.

How to Survive a Plague is David France's first film as director, a surprising fact considering the expert hand employed in culling the vast amount of footage used in the film.  France is best known for his well-respected career in journalism, and he tells this story very much in a journalistic tone.  Though the film does include brief modern interviews from some of the people shown in the film, the success of the film comes from the inherent drama of the footage shown, without modern interpretation or comment.  France knows enough to let the footage speak for itself and allows us to make our own judgments without telling us what to think.

Unlike many documentaries that largely rely on splicing together fly-on-the-wall footage from the past, How to Survive a Plague is able to escape the trap of  emotional distance.  By somewhat narrowly focusing on some of the movement's most compelling figures, notably Peter Staley and Bob Rafsky, we are connected to the human faces of the plague, making the drama even more impactful.  This decision to focus on these figures allowed France not to have to decide between taking a comprehensive look at the response to the AIDS crisis as a whole or focusing on a few individual's stories, but instead to tell the story through the lives of its leaders.  This technique is far from revolutionary, but is all too infrequently used, and rarely as successfully as in France's hands.

The outbreak of the AIDS crisis and the government's inexcusably slow reaction combined to make the period of time depicted in this film one of the most terrifying and shameful eras in American history.  Yet out of this shame, David France has told the inspiring story of the New York homosexual community's brave effort to fight through fear and indifference and push for the rights of AIDS patients.  It is a fine and surprising film, and a beautiful tribute to the heroes of the movement.

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