It can add a lot to a documentary when its content is presented in an interesting format. Some of the success of How to Survive a Plague (which is nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar and is, in this person’s opinion, the best documentary of 2012) is due to the format in which it is presented in. Dealing with events that happened in the 1980s and 1990s, the filmmakers are somehow able to get a wealth of firsthand footage despite the fact that this took place well before the Social Network Age we live in now. Of course all of this footage is utilized to create a compelling tale of the fight against AIDS.
How to Survive a Plague follows the grassroots campaign to fight government obstruction in the fight against AIDS as well as the search for a cure. The film is directed by David France (who is a prominent investigative reporter in New York who is making his directorial debut with this film).
David France does a fantastic job in presenting a subject matter that is slowly being forgotten as treatment has become better. With absolutely no cure available, France is able to capture the fear and chaos that erupted as the AIDS breakout began in the 80s. As someone who was born after the height of the AIDS pandemic, this was all new to me and it was just shocking.
While nothing is ultimately able to match these opening scenes, France does a strong job of keeping the momentum of the story going. As the search for a cure begins, France somehow finds material of different experimental projects going on that is quite intriguing. This is also mixed with footage of people who are suffering from AIDS. He finds the perfect amount of this type of footage to fit in because as a viewer you are left shocked but never overwhelmed at the extent that AIDS goes to on the human body.
The only thing that really works against this film is something that affects many documentaries: it’s runtime. While there is a lot of material that should have been included in this film, the pacing does suffer a bit in the second half. It probably would have helped the film if it lost ten minutes or so.
How to Survive a Plague presents an interesting subject matter in an interesting format. It is the best documentary of the year and David France and his team should be on stage at the Dolby Theater accepting the Best Documentary Oscar later this month.