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DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on the Inspiring AIDS Documentary “How to Survive a Plague”

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Recently, the media marked the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the nascent political movement started to protest corporate influence on government. Of course, this country has had a long history of activism, whether it’s the women’s suffrage movement that began in the 19th century, the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, or the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, and it’s a sign of a strong democracy that its citizens continually feel empowered to let their voices be heard.

Probably the most meaningful activist cause of the last 30 years — one that’s still ongoing — is the fight for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. That cause has suffered setbacks along the way, but as a moving new documentary, “How to Survive a Plague,” demonstrates, there has also been significant progress, most notably in the fight to curb the spread of AIDS in the gay community in the 1980s and ‘90s. The film opened in select cities over the weekend and will be arriving on VOD platforms starting on Friday. It’s a stirring reminder that activism can sometimes be a messy, difficult process but a necessary one in order to bring about change.

“How to Survive a Plague” is directed by David France, a journalist who has been writing about AIDS for 30 years, and the documentary tells the story of ACT UP, a New York group that was committed to raising awareness of the disease and advocating for extensive government research into finding a cure. One of the organization’s biggest hurdles at the time was a public perception that AIDS was a gay illness, and consequently there was reluctance among some to help people whose lifestyle they found immoral. This meant that ACT UP had to fight bigotry as much as they were fighting a disease.

Of the film’s many laudable qualities, “How to Survive a Plague” takes us back to the roughly 10-year period that began with ACT UP’s formation in 1987, providing us with a wealth of archival footage from the organization’s meetings and public protests. As a result, “How to Survive a Plague” feels less like a historical document — although it’s certainly a valuable one — than it does an urgent battle plan that’s unfolding as we watch. Even if you already know how instrumental ACT UP’s actions were in convincing government, scientists, and drug makers to speed up their work, “How to Survive a Plague” is undeniably tense and electric. By relying largely on the old footage shot by ACT UP members, the documentary serves as a year-by-year chronicle of the incremental progress made by the group in all its messy unpredictability.

That messiness is important because it shows that democracy doesn’t often flow smoothly, requiring activists to try all different tactics to achieve their goals. In “How to Survive a Plague,” we see ACT UP’s key figures — including charismatic spokesman Peter Staley and fiery PR pro Bob Rafsky — incorporate everything from sit-ins (which they called “kiss-ins”) to theatrical, highly orchestrated protests (such as dumping the ashes of loved ones on the White House lawn) to meeting with influential congressmen, moving on to new publicity strategies when old ones start to lose their potency. At the same time, the film shows how activist groups evolve over time, moving out of their idealistic early period and learning how to reconcile changing (sometimes competing) agendas within their membership. While “How to Survive a Plague” celebrates the perseverance of ACT UP, the documentary doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the group’s internal divisions after years of frustration. (Indeed, such a moment of frisson at an ACT UP meeting from the early ’90s leads to one of the film’s most cathartically beautiful scenes.)

When we think about renowned activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. who devoted their lives to changing the world, the word we often use to describe them is “courageous.” And while courage is certainly an important ingredient in challenging society’s preconceptions and biases, the men and women shown in “How to Survive a Plague” relied on anger and desperation as much as bravery. Typical Hollywood feature films would depict these people as tireless heroes, but as we see in the archival footage, they were actually quite human — articulate and smart and impassioned, but also enraged and scared about a disease that was killing their community while too much of the rest of the world looked the other way. That anger permeates “How to Survive a Plague,” which unapologetically presents ACT UP’s more combative protests and showy publicity stunts, including a confrontation with Bill Clinton while he was on the stump during the 1992 Democratic primaries. There will be those, myself included, who might become annoyed during parts of this film because it seems that ACT UP’s actions are childish or unproductive, but France makes a convincing argument that the net value of the group’s activities was resoundingly productive, kicking and screaming to bring exposure to AIDS. If nothing else, the film reminds the rest of us from the comfort of our safe remove that few things get done in a democracy by the mild and the polite.

Because it focuses on archival footage that’s supplemented by a smattering of present-day interviews, “How to Survive a Plague” is more a portrait of a cause than an in-depth examination of those involved, although we do learn enough about these individuals to deeply admire them. For an even more up-close-and-personal snapshot of how AIDS decimated communities, you should seek out last year’s “We Were Here,” a superb documentary that chronicles how San Francisco’s gay population combated the disease in the 1980s. In a sense, they’re companion pieces, offering a personal and political perspective on a scourge that claimed far too many lives. But as “How to Survive a Plague” demonstrates, though the terror of AIDS has subsided, it’s a disease that still persists. Meanwhile, the LGBT movement has made major inroads in convincing the rest of society to treat its community with the same respect and rights that all other groups receive. But that fight is not yet completed. When I was a kid learning about the civil rights movement, I wondered what it would be like to be alive during such a pivotal moment in American history. Only in my adult life have I realized that another such movement has been with us for quite some time. With its rage and tears, “How to Survive a Plague” has delivered an eloquent document of history as it happened — history that has yet to write its final chapter.

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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…