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Netflix fix: 'How to Survive a Plague' reveals terrifying crusade to end AIDS crisis

By Luis Rendon/lrendon@vicad.com
Feb. 6, 2013 at 2:04 p.m.
Updated Feb. 5, 2013 at 8:06 p.m.

A scene from the AIDS activist documentary, "How to Survive a Plague."

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I imagine for a lot of people the AIDS crisis was something that happened outside of their world. Even by its end in the early '90s, when almost 3 million people around the world were dead because of AIDS-related complications, it isn't hard for me to believe that so many people could be uncaring or unmoved by what was something truly devastating.

For many of us, we made it through without any loss. The breakthrough drugs, the world health conferences and election cycles that so many people were counting on meant little to us because we just didn't know.

For those of us who didn't know, who were too young to understand the AIDS crisis, myself included, or weren't even born yet, "How to Survive a Plague" (Not Rated, I'd say PG-13, 2 hours) is all the more important.

Nominated for an Oscar this year, watching "How to Survive a Plague" is like learning about a past you never knew you had. It tells the story of two grassroots organizations, ACT UP and TAG, who endeavored to learn as much as they could about the disease that was killing them and the people they loved and, more importantly, pushed leaders and scientists to use this information to save them.

Archival clips from their meetings, events and demonstrations make up the bulk of the documentary, forcing you to not just watch but also participate in their struggle.

When the group members storm the National Institute of Health in Maryland to demand test trials of AIDS medication become a priority, you're there. When hundreds of crying friends and families are marching to the White House to throw the ashes of loved ones on the front lawn, you're there.

Interwoven through these jarring clips are interviews with key organizers, scientists and politicians who lived through it all.

The movie is wide in its spectrum, moving from the scientists at big pharmaceutical companies, the politicians who begrudgingly began to talk about the epidemic, the religious leaders who turned their heads and, of course, the personal stories of the men and women who kept fighting and kept dying.

The film isn't about AIDS, and it's certainly not just about gay people but rather about all of us and what we do when a fellow man is sick. "What does a decent society do with people who hurt themselves because they are human?" asks one of the doctors early in the movie, setting the crux for the entire film.

Today, 25 years after the AIDS crisis ended, it's still hard to imagine what these people went through for us. Today, we have drugs, care, tolerance, and a positive diagnosis of HIV or AIDS doesn't necessarily mean a death sentence. And after watching this movie, you know who to thank for that.

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