When tasked with making a documentary about historical events, filmmakers must choose between two divergent strategies: looking backwards, with talking heads and archival footage elucidating events from long ago, which, if done right, brings the past into an emotional present (one thinks of such greats as Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) or Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground (2003)); or attempting to transform the past into a present, providing an almost real-time chronicle of history as if it was unfolding at this very moment.
David France’s How to Survive a Plague, which opens theatrically this Friday, exemplifies the latter tack, putting 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 film presents an urgent, you-are-there account of those who worked within the advocacy group ACT UP. Through “brain power and street power,” as activist Larry Kramer puts it in the film, the organization surmounted prejudice, inattentive government agencies and idle pharmaceutical companies to find more effective ways to fight the spread, as well as the effects, of the disease.
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.
Even many of the film’s first-person interviews are taken from archival footage, which, by not being removed from the terrible circumstances at hand, effectively put the audience in the midst of their painful maw. “I’m going to die from this,” says ACT UP founder Peter Staley at one point, and France’s contemporaneous approach makes Staley’s comment that much more ominous—and suspenseful. Will Staley, indeed, survive? (It’s only near the end of the film when the conspicuous absence, or presence, of certain characters signals who made it and who didn’t.)
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.
Robert Stone’s engrossing Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst chronicles the infamous Symbionese Liberation Army, from its genesis to the media circus around heiress Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and revolutionary transformation to the SLA members’ annihilation in a Waco-like ball of flames. Much of the news footage that Stone uses has been seen before, but he manages to compile it into a tense, 88-minute thriller, full of bank robberies and police sieges. Heart’s audio recordings are particularly eerie and resonant: “Mom, Dad, I am with a combat unit with automatic weapons; Mom, Dad, tell the people that I have chosen to stay and fight.”
Similarly, José Padilha’s Bus 174 resurrects the drama of a bus hijacking that goes horribly wrong in Rio de Janeiro. Employing tons of news footage that captured the event as it was unfolding, Padilha toggled from among dozens of camera angles—from close-ups to helicopter shots—once again offering a view of history that feels as if it’s live news coverage. Or—as many critics said of the documentary—Hollywood films like Dog Day Afternoon and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. At one point in the film, the hijacker, a disturbed man named Sandro do Nascimento, waves his pistol and shouts out the bus window, “This is no action movie!” Of course, it isn’t; but then again, it is.
As engrossing as any fictional feature, these movies unfold with a propulsive narrative energy. And with their life-and-death stakes, it’s easy to see why David France chose to use a similar strategy for his story of the AIDS crisis—a scenario that, while not involving hold-ups and hostages, was just as deadly.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.