Too often, movies about HIV/AIDS fall into the same trap. They treat the disease as something terrifying and tragic, which it is, but it’s the way in which they present it. They take a passive stance, as if to say “aww, isn’t it so sad that this happens?” It is. It’s terrible that HIV/AIDS exists in our world, but you won’t find too many people that disagree with that stance. A number of films surrounding HIV/AIDS are too wrapped up in making HIV/AIDS patients into further victims to say much of note.
Thankfully, How To Survive A Plague is no such film. From its opening credits, the film is imbued with an unparalleled and unbridled sense of passion about its subject matter. True, it tackles the inescapable emotional aspects of the disease, but it doesn’t stop there. It confronts viewers with the ugly truths surrounding HIV/AIDS. It, along with its interviewees, recognize the difficulty in tackling a topic like HIV/AIDS, but more importantly, they acknowledge that the things we don’t want to hear are the things that we need to hear the most.
It may sound bizarre to criticize other films for being so passive about HIV/AIDS, especially when considering the medium of film is pretty passive itself, but How To Survive A Plague taps into the beauty of art and any other form of filmmaking. True, the experience of watching the movie is passive, but director David France is able to awaken the need for discussion with this film. It’s the kind of film that truly and sincerely makes you want to take action in any way that you can. While this may sound sanctimonious or self-righteous, France highlights the act of rebellion and protest as something accessible, something manageable to any viewer. At the core of How To Survive A Plague, the most defiant act of protest is the simplest one: talking. After all, that’s what How To Survive A Plague is: it’s a conversation piece. Yes, it demonstrates other forms of civil disobedience, but the message that it keeps returning to is the one predominantly displayed on the cover. “Silence = Death.” True, David France didn’t coin this phrase or even make it famous, but he reminds us that this idea remains true today.
How To Survive A Plague chronicles HIV/AIDS as the terrifying disease that everybody was too afraid to talk about. Truth be told, HIV/AIDS no longer remains a death sentence. It isn’t curable, but it is treatable. Sadly, this has led to a level of complacency in the GLBT community. “Oh, they have drugs for it” or “it doesn’t mean what it used to” are shockingly common phrases I have heard from members of my community. How To Survive A Plague is an important reminder that this wasn’t always the case and it should still be treated as a concern. More importantly, a number of the people seeing this film, myself included, were too young when the initial AIDS crisis swept the nation. This film is an important reminder of where we came from. It also serves as a disturbing reminder of all that people lost to get to where we are today.
Nevertheless, How To Survive A Plague isn’t just an elaborate fear tactic. It’s not just about shocking people out of complacency. This film is life affirming in its convictions. Terms like “moving” and “inspiring” are cheap words, too often used in film reviews for an added level of sensationalism, but when I saw that How To Survive A Plague is a potentially life-changing movie, I am not exaggerating.
How To Survive A Plague will be released on DVD on February 26. Special features include commentary with the director and several ACT UP activists, as well as deleted scenes and a trailer for the film.