June is Pride Month, but parades, picnics and symposiums aren’t the only way to celebrate and commemorate. Within Netflix’s vast and amazing documentary collection is How to Survive a Plague, a stunning, heart–rending look at the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States. Directed by David France, an investigative journalist who covered AIDS from its beginnings, the documentary focuses on the efforts of advocacy group ACT UP to gain respect and recognition from the government. Nearly all of the film is comprised of archived footage from ACT UP’s town meetings, protests and achievements, as well as interviews with the group’s founders. France went through over 700 hours of footage from over 30 contributing sources to assemble the film, which covers a nine-year period (starting in 1987) of AIDS activism in New York City.
As with any film about AIDS, How to Survive a Plague offers its fair share of heartbreak. There are stories that are too painful to hear, scenes that are too upsetting to fully process. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching part of the film is just watching several strong, vibrant, passionate men become hollow, emotionless skeletons as the minutes tick by and the disease progresses.
But, ultimately, How to Survive a Plague is not a tragedy. ACT UP’s history is both fascinating and inspiring to watch, especially with France’s use of uncensored footage. The group’s leaders and participants are fearless and tenacious in their struggles against an apathetic government, turning them from social pariahs into heroes of social justice. It is because of them that we now live in a world where an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, where same-sex marriage is legal in 19 states, where LGBT Pride has its own month, its own neighborhoods and its own Broadway Playbills. Because of them, we survived the plague.