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Film Review: How to Survive a Pandemic

10 June 22 words: Abbie Leeson

A muddled slideshow of pandemic-era suffering or a heartfelt window into racial and economic medical injustice?

Director: David France
Running time: 105 minutes

Let me paint a picture for you. The year is 2020. The month is December. We open on an intimate shot of Dr Peter Marks, setting up a phone call in the temporary FDA Vaccine Division headquarters – or, more simply, his basement. He jogs down the concrete stairs, sits himself at the table and begins drafting a report. It’s a big day today: the FDA has released an emergency use authorisation for the first Covid-19 Vaccine in the United States. He’s finishing up a call with General Gustave Perna, congratulating him on an early release. Across him sit four cans of Oatmeal and a teddy bear.  

When investigative journalist David France first released his debut documentary How to Survive a Plague in 2012, its overwhelming flood of acclaim plunged him straight into an Oscar nomination and an exciting new film career. It comes as no surprise then that, an entire decade later, France is tackling Covid, too.  

Much like his previous film, How to Survive a Pandemic rips the door to the scientific world off its hinges, revealing the deeply political and unjust roots that lie at the base of medical distribution. Faced with unprecedented world-wide demand, a global network of scientists enter the race to produce a vaccine in a vastly accelerated production process. From the production line to the bloodstream, we watch on with intrigue as gloved fingers dart from trolley to tray, desperate to put some sort of end to the virus that tore the world to pieces.  

Intermittently, a black screen chimes in with a growing death rate. The camera falls onto desolate, cinematic scenes of world-wide hardship. Workers in white protective gear douse every surface in disinfectant. Business owners fall to their knees and scrub their seats and floors with desperation. Shaking hands stretch upwards to lift a coffin into a shallow grave. Paramedics rush a trolley into the whiteness of a busy hospital ward. Inside, bodies lie heavy, their breathing scratchy and laboured. In a building nearby, a vaccine is being born.

Careering through snippets of film and often neglecting to elaborate, the doc often feels more like a montage than a finished piece of cinema

In heartbreaking moments of community, we follow Rev Paul Abernathy and the Neighborhood Resilience Project, navigating a world of understandable medical mistrust amongst the BIPOC community. We shuffle door-to-door. Real faces. Real communities. Dr Abernathy, in an impassioned speech to his team, curses the government for their lies and racist medical negligence. Intermittently, France offers a loving glance to his previous work, recalling the profound injustice of the HIV crisis and the failure of the global healthcare system to provide lower income countries with the medication they truly required – a display of greed and self-indulgence that hasn’t been remedied, even decades later. At the very end of the film, France confronts us with a truly horrific reality: “If global distribution had been truly equitable in the first full year of vaccine availability, experts estimate, an additional one million lives might have been saved”. And then the credits roll.  

I’ll give him this: the sheer scope of coverage is an ambitious achievement for this project. Moments of emotional and scientific resilience are undoubtedly the soaring successes of the doc, and France’s ability to capture the ever-elusive honest opinions of those at the forefront of America’s political playground is an accomplishment worthy of praise. The end-result, however, falls short of spectacular.  

While How to Survive a Pandemic brushes against the injustices of the medical field, it refuses to truly penetrate the surface. Against its soaring, similarly-titled predecessor, the film seems merely passable, ultimately lacking the level of depth expected from France. Careering through snippets of film and often neglecting to elaborate, the doc often feels more like a montage than a finished piece of cinema. While some sections seem to dawdle and meander, others race to finish, and the end product is muddled and confusing. Faces flash across the screen at record speeds. In one moment, we’re walking the streets of South Africa. In another, we’re in the box bedroom of a family in Brazil. Tangled interview snippets and scientific diagrams dart relentlessly through the runtime, and the political message at the heart of the project is lost somewhere in between.  

At its best, How to Survive a Pandemic is a brutally honest, impassioned exposé of global healthcare inequality, and a well-shot window into the largest public health effort of human history. At its worst, it is a collection of muddled scientific footage and interviews, overshadowed by a stream of far more coherent pandemic-era docs that have already graced our screens.

How to Survive a Pandemic is available on Dogwoof On Demand

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