F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 6, 2017)

6 07 2017

I first saw the documentary “How to Survive a Plague” in 2013, a time when its history of the LGBT community’s fight against bigotry for recognition and support in the face of a health epidemic felt like just that: history. The Supreme Court had yet to issue either of its landmark rulings, but the White House had come out in support of marriage equality. Prejudice still clearly existed, to be clear. Yet we seemed past a tipping point.

Fast forward to 2017. The White House didn’t issue a statement even acknowledging the existence of Pride Month. Amidst cries for justice from our most vulnerable citizens, we see a similar strategy from the government: avoidance, deprioritization and even outright lies. Suddenly, the members of ACT UP in the 1980s look like a great model for resistance. They organized and rallied around a clear call for action. They put pressure on organizations to make concrete steps in combatting the AIDS crisis. They carefully selected targets to mobilize public opinion in their favor.

For a viewer watching in the Trump administration, “How to Survive a Plague” meets the criteria of “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie – your occasional acronym refresher) on the basis of its existence as a resistance toolkit. But David France’s documentary is so much more than just its practical applications. It strikes the delicate balance between recounting events via talking heads and letting them unfold authentically, just as it nimbly shifts between group dynamics and individual stories. The film bears its late ’80s-early ’90s lo-fi digital aesthetic on its sleeve, yet it feels searing, pressing and urgent. For someone like me who became aware of the AIDS epidemic around the time it was no longer a public death sentence, this rendering is vital both in remembering the past and preventing it from repeating in the future.

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