Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 12, 2012 6:28 pm 
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An important film about the AIDS struggle in its early, key years

France's documentary, which is intense, passionate, but clearheaded, concerns the fight in the US to get research and treatment for AIDS and HIV. It focuses on two organizations, ACT-UP and TAG. The fight was in New York, when in 1987 a group of HIV-positive gay men, gay women, and others teamed up to do something about the lack of urgent action to provide medication to prevent people from dying of AIDS. This story has been told before, but France neatly organizes old footage to present a historical picture that is clearer than ever before and follows through to the point when medication and care were being provided to enable people to live with AIDS, a point first reached in the late Nineties. The key development was the move to protease inhibitors shifting from monotherapy to combination therapy, bringing a massive decline in AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. and transforming HIV into a manageable chronic illness.

A key activist element in this development was TAG. TAG developed when there was a period of disenchantment and split in which some Act-Up members moved away from street demos and entered highly technical fields of medical and scientific research to force an end to the disorganized, slow, and limited progress among medical and governmental organizations responsible for dealing with AIDS.

France, a journalist who has been following the AIDS crisis since the beginning, uses ACT-UP footage to follow some of the leading activists, who include Peter Staley, Jim Eigo, Garance Franke-Riuta, Mark Harrington, Spencer Cox, Larry Kramer, Bill Bahlman, David Barr, Gregg Bordowitz, Gregg Gonsalves, Derek Link, and Iris Long. The film leaves to the end the answer to the question of which HIV-positive men involved in the fight survive to today, though in some cases their appearance as present-day, talking heads answers that question. Of course the film fills in the background of lousy initial NIH support, a President Reagan who did not even mention the name of the disease, a Bush Senior who claimed the government was doing just fine, a Jesse Hems who said it was God's punishment for evil behavior. But the living, strong part of this film is its depiction of how a group of activists fought successfully to change the whole way the plague was being fought. The notably included activists and patients' being on boards of organizations and consulting directly with drug companies.

How to Survive a Plague captures the revolutionary fervor of the early ACT-UP period with particular energy and vividness. It was a time when desperation and anger were turned into effective action. There was excitement in the air. People were dying left and right, life was tragic, but people had a palpable sense of the need to go for broke, and the leaders were heroes who were the best they could be. As the Hollywood Reporter review puts it, this serves as "a sequel of sorts to seminal AIDS works like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart or Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On." The film has been picked up by IFC Films sister division Sundance Selects for US distribution. It debuted at Sundance in January 2012 and is included as part of the New Directors/New Films series of MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It was screened in connection with ND/NF for this review. Public ND/NF showings of this documentary were scheduled during the series March 24 and 25, 2012.

How to Survive a Plague will be released in US theaters by Sundance Selects September 21, 2012.

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