The AIDS saga How to Survive a Plague arrives on the heels of at least two other significant documentaries on the same subject, all three released 30 years after the disease was first clinically observed in the U.S. United in Anger, about the activist group ACT UP, has played the festival circuit, while Vito, profiling ACT UP member and gay historian Vito Russo, aired on HBO. There’s a lot of overlap between the three, and in a lot of ways, Plague and Anger are the same film, with slight differences: Anger is shorter, narrowly confined to one subject (ACT UP) and did a better job than Plague at bottling up the anger of an era fueled by desperate, righteous protests.
Plague is the one with the better title and the splashy distribution deal, but while its focus is more broad and its tone less hectic, that doesn’t make for a less gutting view. Starting with “year six,” David France’s epic account follows a community fighting to be heard amongst vast governmental indifference and often unbridled homophobia. As many people were fighting for their lives—and many of them don’t make it to the film’s end—their only logical tactic was to get louder and more rambunctious. That, and to take science into their own hands. As the FDA was slow to test and release often ineffectual and prohibitively-priced drugs, members of ACT UP—and later, splinter group TAG–had to teach themselves science so that when they gave doctors a hard time, they knew what they were talking about.
A strong subject does not automatically make for a strong documentary, and what really makes Plague dynamic—as well as Untied in Anger and Vito—is this fact: The rise of consumer video cameras in the early ‘80s coincided with the proliferation of AIDS. Like suburban families, AIDS activists were suddenly able to film their every move, and the presence of actual footage makes traditional talking heads happily superfluous. Because it’s been exhaustively filmed, an era is summoned up not orally but cinematically. But this is no mere history lesson. Those looking for topicality can look to its blistering footage and see a blueprint on how any oppressed minority can get shit changed.