Staff Review/ How to Survive a Plague

Digital Reporter Rob Battersby reviews How to Survive a Plague

“What does a decent society do with people who hurt themselves because they’re human? People who smoke too much, who drink too much, who eat too much, who drive carelessly, who don’t have safe sex.” Bob Rafsky

An articulate and highly intelligent man, Rafsky was a figurehead of anti-AIDS activism in the late 1980s, leaving his job in 1987 he became a key member in one of the most powerful grass-root movements in American history. “This the centre of an epidemic” he screamed at presidential candidate Bill Clinton during a televised fundraiser, “and what are you doing about it?.. I’m dying of aids while you’re dying of ambition.”

Created from over 700 hours of archive material, How to Survive a Plague gives a powerful insight into the movement that forced America to address HIV/AIDS as a scientific problem which required immediate action. Whilst George Bush Sr. was offering the backhanded solution of ‘a change of lifestyle‘,  those suffering with the disease were regularly being turned away from hospitals. Anti-AIDS activists were fighting the stigma of health care, politics and religion in an attempt to be treated fairly. Rafsky along with many other activists who were suffering with the disease, took it upon themselves to see that their government and medical authorities did everything in their power to combat and research HIV/AIDs, at a time when the virus was claiming nearly 1 million lives worldwide every year.

Well edited and highly insightful, this documentary finds strength in the personality of it’s protagonists, and emotion in their suffering. There are times when the strife of men like Rafsky is almost unbearable. Their courage to address political intransigence and broad social ignorance that borders on infuriating, is a story that everyone should know. For me, this is the story of a political and social discourse that can seem ignorantly distant when we consider the advances in treatment of the disease. (I recently read that even bee venom has been found to destroy HIV in the human body).

How to Survive a Plague contextualises both the social and political struggles of a collective, and the history of a virus of which many were ignorant, awakening a conscience towards both. In the words of Bob Rafsky, “A decent society does not put people out to pasture and let them die because they’ve done something human.”

How to Survive a Plague screens at Cornerhouse on Thu 23 Jan at 18:20. Book tickets and watch the trailer here.