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The 2013 Oscars, scheduled for February 24, are right around the corner. Contenders like ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Les Miserables’ have already been watched, discussed and popularised. The lesser known nominees, however, are just as worthy of viewing and praising. In particular, behind the glitz and glamour of A-list celebrities receiving accolades are the non-celebrity protagonists of real life narratives: Those whose stories are told through documentaries. Over the next few weeks, until the Oscars, we have a look at the five nominees in the Best Documentary Feature category.


If Searching for Sugar Man is like a savory appetizer, How To Survive a Plague is a gratifyingly filling main course.

A documentary painstakingly pieced together to present a collective memory of the hardships that HIV patients go through to survive the AIDS epidemic, this film successfully brings an amalgam of sincerity and hard-breaking candor onto the screen. How To Survive a Plague, with its mostly archival footage from the late 1980s and early 1990s, plays true to the unpremeditated genre of cinéma pur. It unfolds a revolutionary road to turn AIDS into a more controllable condition while rooting every scene to reality, dismissing any chance to fabricate fictional details since it had all happened.

In an epoch where HIV-positive patients are regarded with disdain and bigotry – even in hospitals – AIDS was not only a disease, it had become a plague which saw no end to their sufferings. As one activist wrathfully reminds his fellow advocates of their imminent death, “Plague, we are in the middle of a plague, 40 million infected people is a plague!” 

Just like every other story, there are heroes and villains, and more so in this documentary due to its communal history. The protagonists of the film are a group of young men and women who despite all obstacles laid the groundwork for the voices of HIV-positive patients to be heard.

These grass-roots committees formed by HIV activists in the early years of the AIDS crisis, belonged to a coalition called the ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group).


As Euripides so aptly put, nothing has more strength than dire necessity. These HIV activists, most carriers as well, became scientists, data analyzers, researchers, and chemists so that they could save themselves, and most importantly, convince government agencies to help them, or at the very least, listen to them. Opinions needed to be changed, starting primarily with the bureaucrats’ discrimination against homosexuality and their indifference towards the anguish of the AIDS community.

There is something about seeing this film in its unpolished grainy VHS images that communicated a real sense of urgency even from a long-past era. Though it might not be visually pleasing enough for some film buffs, there prevails a sense of connection between the on-screen fighters and their audience, which is somehow made stronger because of these unrefined raw footages.


AIDS remained a merciless killer of millions, even now. But at least we know there were these people who fought to live longer, who eventually succeeded in gaining the attention of unsympathetic pharmaceutical companies and government agencies who could not care less about them, except when from trying to profit from their desperation. It is an important part of history for all members of present society, gay or straight. Because How To Survive a Plague not only recounted the activities of ACT UP and TAG, it also documented an era where insurgency matters, where losing and death finally counts for something.


Director David France wanted the story to tell itself, and it did.

Before this film, not many knew that ACT UP or TAG existed, me neither, and certainly not many people knew that the AIDS virus was once uncontainable, that it was once killing millions just because society refused to accept homosexuals as part of them. France and all the videographers who made this stirring documentary possible made sure this part of our past is not forgotten, made sure those who have suffered from such non-acceptance were finally recognised. In fact, it is near impossible to find the director’s imprint on any of the scenes, because this film has a far greater cause to fulfill than personal input, and France understood that, which was why How To Survive a Plague thrived as an ingenuous chronicle of our history.

How To Survive a Plague speaks of an issue that is still relevant now, in light of recent battles on the legislation of gay marriages. From another angle, these battles are also manifestation of the plague with its endless outreach, which brings us back to the seed of rhetorical irony planted right from the start – so how do we survive a plague (especially one which has never quite ended)? The answer in the documentary is simple.

There is this line in the film that consistently appears during moments of upheaval - "The whole world is watching".

It might not be true for now, but I certainly hope it will be.


Watch this space for the next Oscar nominated Best Documentary Feature this year: The Invisible War.


View Dawn.com’s review of the five Best Documentary Features, Oscars 2013 here.


The author is an Intern at Dawn.com from Singapore who likes to write on films, books and music.

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The author is an Intern at Dawn.com from Singapore who likes to write on films, books and music (but is in fact a doraemon aficionado who is curious about everything, real or imaginary).

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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