HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE



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How to Survive a Plague, the new documentary written by David France (who also directed), Todd Woody Richman and Tyler H. Walk, could be described as rounding up the unusual suspects.  Though this history of AIDS activism and ACT UP doesn’t ignore the more well known participants (Vito Russo, Mathilde Krim, and Larry Kramer—who has a terrifyingly, gut wrenching moment when he shouts down a particularly confrontational meeting with one word, “plague”, and upbraids the participants as if they were children), this chronicle celebrates more the “little people”, the ones more behind the scenes and not as well known, like Iris Long, a retired chemist who taught them all how to navigate the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of scientific research; Bob Rafsky, who got into a shouting match with then candidate Bill Clinton and by doing so, turned AIDS into one of the major issues of the 1992 presidential campaign; and Peter Staley, who could leap small buildings in a single bound and hang SILENCE=DEATH banners while leading demonstrations (his other super power was leaving Pat Buchanan speechless and unable to respond to Paley’s logic when it came to the use of condoms—who needs a radioactive spider when you can do that).  And this is to name but a few.  A very few.  A very, very, very few. 
In this way, …Plague is the antithesis of the more recent reverential look at politics summed up in the movie Lincoln.  If the producer and director of …Plague had created that movie (rather than Spielberg/Kushner), the story of abolishing slavery would have focused on people like Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe (as the recent three part American Experience on PBS has done).  Whereas Spielberg/Kushner subscribe to the historical theory of the Great Man, …Plague subscribes to the idea that history is driven by the masses, driven by events bigger than any one person can control.
In this way, …Plague falls more into the category of recent films like Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables in which mid-level bureaucrats, unheard of undercover agents and the common man determine the future.  For these movies, history is not driven by Napoleon conquering Europe, but by an army of soldiers backed by a devastating winter that defeats a supposed superman.  Even Django Unchained says that slavery was ultimately ended by a movement rather than by Congressional fiat.
Whether you agree with me or not, …Plague is a devastating documentary about a devastating period in world history that to this day has not been fully resolved.  It’s moving, painful, emotionally overwhelming at times.  It’s also filmed with the attitude of ironic nostalgia.  The survivors look back at that period in anger and horror.  But they also look back at it as a time when they were really alive, never more so that when they were facing imminent death (existentialism is alive and well and living in the U.S.).  With the discovery in the 1990’s of combination therapy, they had won their victory.  But there was a slight touch of pyrrhic about it.   Today, touched by survivor’s guilt, they continue their lives, wondering if anything in their lives could ever provide as much meaning as that time did. 
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