Joshua Reviews David France’s How To Survive A Plague [Theatrical Review]

This may very well prove to be this decade’s greatest year for documentary feature films. Yes, it’s still very early on here in the ‘˜10s, however, given the brilliance that the documentary world has thrust upon the public over this calendar year, it will take an all-time great slate of non-fiction features to beat out what we’ve got here. With new films from the likes of Steve James (the fantastic Head Games) and even Frederick Wiseman (the year’s best documentary, Crazy Horse), 2012 is a watershed moment for the medium.

And yet, we are now just getting what may very well be the most inspiring and truly important documentary that we’ve seen all year.

How To Survive A Plague tells the story of, with home video equipment and its arrival in homes around the world at the center of the movement’s spreading, two different groups fighting tooth and nail to get those afflicted with the AIDS virus the treatment they desperately need. Focusing on the pair of groups known as ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), the film looks at the pair of coalitions as they attempt to give hope to those suffering from AIDS. With the former journalist David France at the helm of the film, the mention of camcorders is truly important, as the film is almost entirely comprised of home video snippets, the film is both a look into the respective movement for AIDS treatment, but it’s arguably even more so a glimpse into the early days when it would be proven that yes, any and all revolutions would be televised into any and every home humanly possible.

With AIDS still a massive epidemic, this film is as vital and important as ever. Giving the viewer faces and stories that one could almost instantly connect with emotionally and intellectually, France’s film is beautifully crafted and starkly intimate. At a point within the history of this country where society was as scared and frightened of any illness, the film has a bleak vitality and darkness to it that makes the light shining through it, these human beings, all the more melancholic. France isn’t tasked with doing much direction, but what he is able to do here is weave these found pieces of footage into a narrative that is simply human emotion at its most pure. There is even a counter keeping track during the film’s runtime of just how many humans have lost their lives to AIDS, that is not only brutally devastating emotionally, but adds so deeply to the film’s underlying anger and sadness all wrapped up in a film that oozes intimacy out of every part of its heart and soul.

The inherent narrative is also immediate and intriguing. With the recent rise of protests throughout the world over, say, the last half decade or so, the film is pertinent to the continual angst felt by generation after generation, completely fed up with the inactivity of the bureaucracy. These men and women are dealing with the highest of stakes; their lives of which are in the hands of doctors and scientists around the world, something that is as frightening an existential crisis as any human could ever have. This purest form of terror, not having control over your own life, adds a well of emotion to this film, that when combined with this narrative makes for a film that is simply brilliant.

Hitting theaters this week via Sundance Selects and IFC, this film screams a potential Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray somewhere down the line. However, if it makes it into the big C’s ranks or not doesn’t matter. How To Survive is a brilliant documentary that may in fact be more of an editing masterpiece than a directing masterwork for director France, it’s simply one of the most emotionally affecting and intellectually vital documentaries that 2012 has to offer. Ranking near the top of the best films of the year so far, this is easily the one film that if you have only a handful of cash to take to the theaters, should be the film you hand that hard earned money over to see. It’s an absolute masterpiece.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.