Movie review: 'Plague' details AIDS battles

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It's no accident that some of the most stirring moments in "How to Survive a Plague" come when voices are raised in anger and sorrow and in unison.

In October 1992, activists in Washington, D.C., for the display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt marched on the White House chanting, "Bringing the death to your door. We won't take it anymore." They carried ashes of loved ones who had died of the disease in polished urns, simple boxes, jewelry cases and plastic bags, and they sprinkled or emptied them on the lawn while repeating the word "Shame."


'How to Survive the Plague'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Rating: R in nature for language, subject matter.

  • It's just one of the powerful moments in the documentary that tells the story of the AIDS epidemic through those who were on the front lines and often in the doctors' offices that promised little or no hope.

    Director David France, a journalist writing about AIDS since 1982 and working on an AIDS history due next year from Alfred A. Knopf, collected and combed through 700 hours of footage shot by people who used early camcorders to record what was happening.

    "How to Survive a Plague" opens in 1987, six years after reports of pneumonia in previously healthy young men became a harbinger of death and doom.

    Unwilling to accept the notion that virtually nothing could be done about AIDS, a group in Greenwich Village, ACT UP, challenges politicians, physicians, pharmaceutical giants, church leaders, bureaucrats and conventional wisdom about such issues as how drugs are tested, approved, brought to market and measured for efficacy.

    It's fascinating to watch leaders -- men, mainly, who previously worked as a bond trader or public relations guru or video artist or playwright -- emerge and educate themselves to the extent that they could address international AIDS conferences with ease and erudition.

    "How to Survive" doesn't shy away from the internal bickering that splits the original organization and prompts writer Larry Kramer to slice through the ugly infighting in one contentious meeting with: "Plague! We are in the middle of a [expletive] plague, and you're behaving like this."

    It's heartening to watch as new drugs and combination therapies are developed, and activists once facing death realize they do have a future. "What do I do now?" one asks, and then wonders if the next chapter will ever be as fulfilling.

    Although it presents the year-by-year worldwide death toll, "How to Survive" is not a history of AIDS. It's a reminder that not everyone in the world can reap the benefits of the hard work of these pioneers.

    It closes with a sad statistic: 2 million people a year (four every minute) still die because they cannot afford AIDS drugs.

    Plays today through Sunday at the Harris Theater, Downtown.

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    Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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