By Dora Bartal
From an Eastern European perspective, the United States has always been an imaginary land of democracy – an ideal society to which countries in this region aim to aspire. The ‘Focus America’ program at Dokufest this year proves that the rights of minorities, including the LGBTQ community, were not as present as they are today, but were fought for regardless. And ‘How to Survive a Plague’ shows that social change doesn’t happen overnight.
The film is set during the early years of the AIDS epidemic when two activist groups, ACT UP and TAG, battle against the conservative public, Republican politicians and pharmaceutical companies to find a cure for HIV. What distinguishes David France’s work from other historical documentaries is its personal tone, which is based on the archival footage mostly made by the participants of the movement. Along with footage from news reports and demonstrations, the private conversations of the activists were also recorded. They openly talk about their fear of death and the thin chances of survival.
Nevertheless, they continued to demand proper healthcare and support for medical research from the government. The film doesn’t want to fool the audience that there was a simple path towards a final solution, but instead sheds light on the conflicts within the community and the desperation when the treatments simply fail to work. Those scenes are the turning points of the film, which are mostly elevated by music, while other images are heartbreaking on their own. The most powerful moment comes when the identity of the survivors are revealed – those who consider themselves veterans from the war since they had to leave their loved ones behind.
The title of David France’s documentary perfectly captures the theme of the film itself: the word ‘plague’ has its dark connotation but ‘survive’ gives the sense of hope and the feeling that the solution is out there. However, the heroic ending seemed to me a bit controversial, considering that the AIDS problem has not yet been tackled everywhere in the world. The director joined us during the Dokufest screening, where one audience member shared my concern: non-democratic countries do not have the privilege to protest and stand up for themselves. The director views the issue in a positive light: since the release of the movie more and more people have been treated in the developing countries. He believes that if a community joins forces they can push initiatives forward like they did back in the 1980’s.