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Originally published Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 3:02 PM

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'How to Survive a Plague': AIDS film follows a parade of disaster

A movie review of "How to Survive a Plague," David France's affecting documentary on the history of AIDS activism. The film makes the most vivid impression as a chronological procession of disaster, beginning with "year 6" (1981).

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

'How to Survive a Plague,' a documentary directed by David France, from a screenplay by France,

T. Woody Richman and Tyler H. Walk. 110 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Egyptian.

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Should be an interesting movie. I wonder if they touch on the protests by the gay folk... MORE

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The title may sound flippant, but "How to Survive a Plague" is a serious, moving and sometimes astonishingly well-organized documentary about the history of AIDS activism.

What makes the most vivid impression is the film's carefully researched chronological parade of disaster. What began as the mysterious killer of a few dozen people in 1981 now counts millions of victims. And the filmmakers don't hold back in blaming politicians who did little or nothing to stop the spread.

Beginning with HIV's "year 6," when hospitals turned away the infected and New York's mayor, Ed Koch, antagonized protesters by talking about their "fascist tactics," first-time director David France focuses on the protest leaders.

They include the ubiquitous Larry Kramer, the once-closeted Peter Staley and the heroic Bob Rafsky, who is shown giving an especially impassioned speech. Vito Russo, who died before he could see his "Celluloid Closet" book become a 1995 film, makes a brief appearance.

Arguing that "health care is a right" and worried that "pneumonia is a death sentence," they sometimes sound quite contemporary. The movie becomes a platform for their frequently confrontational voices, though it's considerably more than a "talking heads" collection.

Inspired by the civil-rights documentary "Eyes on the Prize" and the documentarylike "Bloody Sunday," France dug up home movies, rare newsreels and archival footage of the AIDS memorial quilt to demonstrate how large and widespread the protests became.

Especially telling are survivors' tales of a "suicidal phase," in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when hope for a cure seemed irrational. The situation improved in 1993-95, but by then, for many, it was too late.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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