Given that these days there are feature documentaries about every conceivable footnote in cultural and political history, it's hard to believe that it's taken more than 30 years for a filmmaker to provide a full examination of ACT UP, probably the single most important U.S. activist group since the 1960s. Many across the political spectrum demonized ACT UP as too militant. But just as the militant Wobblies helped give us "radical" wins like the weekend and the eight-hour workday, ACT UP's activism in the early days of the AIDS epidemic yielded basic long-term victories.
Before the virus and its effects were understood, large swaths of the medical establishment threw up their hands, forcing the gay community and its allies in urban centers such as New York and San Francisco to become full-time agitators for the basic rights — access to care, research, humane treatment, prevention of the loss of employment and housing — that any ailing person would simply expect as a matter of course. David France's How to Survive a Plague (showing through tomorrow at The Belcourt) is an unconventional chronicle of the AIDS activists' struggles, victories and setbacks, partly because the film almost entirely avoids omniscience in favor of a slow, methodical view on the ground.
France takes us from the early days, when gay men in New York City are routinely being turned away from city hospitals out of fear and panic, through ACT UP's own formation of medical research cadres devoted to taking the action that government and industry would not. All the while, we see the men and women of ACT UP overcoming confusion through education and anger, demanding action and usually getting it, as an astonishing year-by-year death ticker grinds on. France also provides a clear explication of the development of the revolutionary protease inhibitors that have thankfully helped curb the epidemic — what they are, where they came from and how they work.
A rare documentary that will move you to tears and outrage with absolutely no pandering, manipulation or softening of the subject's complex science, How to Survive a Plague is that rare animal — required viewing for those interested in the subject and in cinema itself. It's one of the year's best films. Full stop.