Sunday, February 3, 2013

How to Survive a Plague (Rhoades)

“How to Survive a Plague”
Documents Aids Pandemic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

The names of more than 1,000 people who died from the plague are carved onto the AIDS Memorial at Key West’s White Street Pier.
“At the height of the pandemic, we'd sometimes have as many as four deaths in one week,'” recalls a local chaplain.
Today, being HIV-positive is no longer a death sentence like it was in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. That’s thanks to the medical breakthroughs that came about, largely due to two activist groups.
“How to Survive A Plague” -- the documentary that’s currently showing at the Tropic Cinema -- traces the history of the deadly human immunodeficiency virus infection. And those who helped fight it to a near-standstill.
Director David France’s inspiring documentary focuses on the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), and its offshoot organization, the Treatment Action Group (TAG). These organizations pressured government agencies and drug companies to develop new treatments for AIDS and fast track them to market.
Until now, little credit had been given to those activists who worked tirelessly throughout the ’80s and early ’90s. Sometimes even laying down in the streets to draw attention to the disease.
The film charts the disease from the rare skin cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma that began appearing on the bodies of gay men to the advent of antiretrovirals 15 years later.
In assembling the documentary, France had unique access to never-before-seen archival footage from that eras. You’ll sit in on the meetings, the scientific breakthroughs, the heart-wrenching failures -- the actual events.
Among those interviewed in the film are playwright Larry Kramer, who co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis; David Barr, a founding member of the Treatment Action Group and the Act Up/New York Treatment and Data Committee; Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Garance Franke-Ruta, who helped found Countdown 18 Months, a group that pressured pharmaceutical companies to speed up the process of developing AIDS drugs.
“I think just about everybody who lived through that is wounded,” says France. “It’s especially true of the people who were on the medical front lines. Because the work they were doing was life and death.”
When France came to New York from Kalamazoo in 1981, the awareness of HIV/AIDS was just beginning. Within a week of his arrival, the first report of AIDS hit the pages of the New York Times.
The New York Times named “How to Survive a Plague” one of the best five documentaries of 2012.
David France has been up close and personal with the HIV/AIDS virus. In 1992, his partner of five years died of the disease. The film is dedicated to him (Doug Gould).

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