How To Survive A Plague

By Cory Haggart

Mailed on February 26, 2013

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Dear Stephen Winter
Story Editor

Dear Stephen,

Your job must have been the easiest, and toughest job in the world. You were tasked with editing an amazing true story, chocked full with drama. There are interesting individuals, a battle against enormous odds, copious amounts of love, death, survival, politics, prejudice, community, and even a happy ending (for many). With subject matter is so rich, how do you choose what your particular movie will be about? Almost any documentary on this topic would have been worthwhile. By not making some hard story choices, however, How to Survive a Plague is merely good, and not as great as it could have been.

Starting in New York City in the early 80s, the film traces the beginning of AIDS awareness and what that meant. As the global rates of death and infection rise, the film follows activist groups and passionate leaders who work together to respond. You had a lot of surprising footage to work with, from inside grass-roots meetings and multiple protests. Diverse groups of people came together to tackle a complicated problem, simultaneously battling misinformation, government neglect and incompetence, corporate greed, the nonpareil dickishness of Jesse Helms, prejudice, fear, and a very deadly disease.

The "How to" aspect of the film makes it extremely relevant today. The Occupy and Tea Party movements are flailing in the US, and calls for political change in places as diverse as Greece and China falling on seemingly deaf ears. How to Survive a Plague serves as an interesting case study about how a small, passionate group of individuals were able to get the attention of politicians, change how government agencies responded to the public, and even enlisted large corporations in their efforts despite being so disenfranchised. "Disenfranchised" isn't even an adequate description. Your film does an excellent job of portraying how endemic homophobia stretched from the bureaucratic, psychopathic blase of NYC mayor Ed Koch (at a time when HIV represented the leading cause of death among all young men in the city) to mainstream media. The members of Act UP and other activists made progress against seemingly insurmountable odds through passion, research, teaching, and rock-solid leadership that is astonishing to me today.

The title also highlights where the film lacked focus and fails. The term "plague" is taken from a persuasive and passionate comment by one of the activists, about how AIDS represents an almost apocalyptic threat.

Interestingly, this comment was a response to internal dissent that fractured the movement. "It got really dark between 1993 and 1994" says one, "and then we got lucky." This rift is given only a short treatment, and the resulting medical solution is introduced just in time for the film to celebrate the victory and end. According to the film, the solution for how you survive a plague is to work hard and "get lucky". This rushed conclusion sells short how much great material you had to work with, and denies us a much more interesting answer. But between touching personal portraits of key activists, the larger social and scientific context, and the rightful celebration of all that was accomplished, there was simply too much packed into the movie for it to all hold together. There is also an amazing story behind the push to allow citizens to sit on boards of key government medical research bodies, and how that actually seemed to distract from good science at the end. That part alone would make a fascinating movie.

Because so much is told here, it may be tougher to make a more focused film about the AIDS epidemic in the US without losing some of the power and surprise of the original material. Perhaps How to Survive a Plague could only be as focused and efficient as the movement it's about. If I learned anything from this film, it's that politics requires a combination of passion and a willingness to get messy. Even though there some false turns here and there, it is excellent that both the movement and the movie exist, and we are all the better for it.

Gratefully yours,


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