By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik September 19, 2012 at 10:17AM
For my latest Docutopia column at the SundanceNow blog, "You Are There: Docs in the Moment," I address the thrilling AIDS doc "How to Survive Plague," which provides an almost real-time chronicle of history as if it was unfolding at this very moment. The film, which opens theatrically this Friday, puts the viewer smack dab in the middle of the struggle to combat the AIDS virus in the 1980s. Using archival footage culled from some 700 hours of video, the movie presents an urgent, you-are-there account of those who worked within the advocacy group ACT UP.
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France’s aesthetic decision pays off in innumerable ways: Not only does the documentary zip along like a fast-breaking news story (this despite spanning some 10 years of material), it makes distant events tangible. For many, the blight of AIDS may seem like a crisis that was resolved a long time ago, but 'How to Survive a Plague' brings us back to a time when it was a frightening epidemic. When, for example, in a period of internal division within ACT UP, Kramer delivers a rousing and furious speech—”Plague!” he yells, “we are in the middle of a plague; 40 million infected people is a plague”—it’s difficult not to feel right at the center of that conflict.
Documentaries about the AIDS crisis are nothing new, of course ("The Origin of AIDS," "Silverlake Life," last year’s "We Were Here"), but "How to Survive a Plague" makes the story fresh, and the frustrations and fury of the period palpable. These activists are literally fighting for their lives, and to watch them in the midst of that struggle makes for compelling viewing.
The affective power of "How to Survive a Plague" recalls a couple of not-to-be-forgotten documentaries from the last decade that also used a rich archive of material to make the past feel urgently present.