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How to Survive a Plague

by Bongani Kona / 11.06.2013

This is one fucking hellish experience.
You are very lucky to be born after the plague is over.

In the late 1980s, when the body count from AIDS had reached plague-proportions and anything resembling a cure, or life saving drugs in the form of protease inhibitors which would come later, was nowhere near the horizon and the future looked bleak, Bill Hayes and his colleagues at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation decided to build a time capsule. It wasn’t anything fancy or high-tech; just a taped up cardboard box containing messages scrawled on bits of paper in response to the question: “what message would you send to people 50 years from now about your experiences during the epidemic?”

The time capsule was to be a record for future generations and survivors of how it was during the early days of the AIDS pandemic and there is a systemary here with David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague. Piped at this year’s Academy Awards for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar by Searching for Sugarman, France’s searingly eloquent film charts the history of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP); a gay activist organisation which had its beginnings in New York in 1987. The urgency of ACT UP’s task – to force the federal government under George W Bush Snr. to allocate more funding to AIDS research and for pharmaceutical companies to make available cheaper drugs during a time of mass death – is captured in the impassioned demostrations and speeches recorded by the activists themselves (over 30 videographers are credited at the end of the film).

In the end, How to Survive a Plague is as inspring as it is heartbreaking. ACT UP and the offshoot organisations it spawned won the war against government negligence and the avarice of the big pharmaceutical companies but so many people died along the way.

Look back in wonder.
Prepare for the next time.
Do not forget us.

The 2013 Encounters Documentary Film Festival runs until the 16th June in Cape Town and Joburg. Check the full program here.

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