David France’s stirring documentary How to Survive a Plague does more that just recount the history of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the direct action advocacy group founded in 1987 during the early days of the AIDS crisis. It tells the story of extraordinary individuals moving big government and big business to pay attention to an epidemic that had been devastating a portion of the American population for years. This inspiring film uses archival footage of ACT UP protests against the National Institute of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral alongside deeply personal interviews with several of the group's surviving members.
“Silence = Death” is the enduring slogan of ACT UP, portraying the organization’s (and individuals') unwavering stamina and action-oriented approach, which notably included the dumping of ashes of loved ones lost to AIDS on the White House lawn.
“If the movie expresses equal measures of sadness and outrage, it is charged with the exhilarating excitement felt by soldiers on the front lines of battle,” says Stephen Holder of The New York Times. “Its heroes may have been sick, but in their struggle they are fiercely alive.”
How to Survive a Plague is far too honest to simply proffer a flattering, unified portrayal of ACT UP’s many successes. In its final act, the film delves into the frustrating details of the group's fracture, sparked by the formation of splinter group TAG (Treatment Action Group). But it is impossible to ignore the fact that, together, these organizations changed the way the world viewed HIV/AIDS and laid the political groundwork for modern LGBT movements.
Accolades (So Far):
Won, Gotham Awards: Best Documentary
Nominated, Independent Spirit Awards: Best Documentary
Won, New York Film Critics Circle Awards: Best First Film
Nominated, Sundance Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize
Shortlisted for Oscar for Best Documentary Feature
Listen to our podcast interview with director David France and producer Howard Gertler from this year's Sundance Film Festival:
Then watch the emational New Directors/New Films Q&A with France and several of the film's subjects: