Few recent documentaries have stirred audiences quite like “How to Survive a Plague,” with its harrowing yet inspiring look into an oft-forgotten period of American history: the early years of the AIDS epidemic that rocked the nation in the 1980s and '90s. In his powerful filmmaking debut, journalist David France explores the ACT UP and TAG movements as they fought for change against an indifferent government and health care system, primarily told through activist-shot footage from those years.
France covered this particularly trying period as a young reporter in New York City, and has since gone on to have award-winning work featured in the likes of “Rolling Stone,” “GQ” and “New York” magazine (for which he is currently a contributing editor). He has taken a break from magazine journalism amidst the whirlwind experience of “How to Survive a Plague,” which will be competing for Best Documentary Feature at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.
The film is now streaming on Netflix with a DVD release slated for next week, but will also be showing at the upcoming Sedona International Film Festival. The East Valley Tribune recently spoke with France ahead of those festival screenings to discuss the film, his own emotional journey and what he believes are the major issues still affecting those living with HIV and AIDS.
Q: I know you’ve written extensively about the AIDS epidemic, but what inspired you to write and direct a film about the ACT UP and TAG movements in particular?
A: Well you know, I’ve covered the epidemic forever, since the early days of the epidemic. It occurred to me recently that all the major works on that time were produced in the middle of the plague years, before 1996 when the advent of new medication made it possible to spot the disease and the death rates dropped dramatically and the hospitals emptied out. Nobody had gone back and looked at the entire scope of those years to try and see what the lessons are from that. You know, where’s the legacy of the plague years in totality?
I knew that part of the story that was missing was the whole advent of AIDS activism and the whole idea that patients and their advocates took on the entire system and ultimately joined hands with the regulators and the scientists and the researchers to help bring about those drugs. So that’s the story that was really missing and the main reason that I turned back to that time to revisit those years.
Q: How long did it take for you to collect all the footage that’s used in the film and was there anything you learned that especially surprised or resonated with you?
A: The footage took me about 3 years to locate and you know, it’s all shot by advocates. At the time, advocates were desperately trying to create a witness record of what was happening when most of the mainstream press was paying no attention to the lives and community that was being so impacted by the disease. When activism hit in 1987, the idea of this historicizing was already firmly in place. I went to a number of known archives for footage initially and then really spent the next 3-year period finding private archives. The majority of the film is built from those private archives and those came from 33 different sources and ultimately produced some 800 hours of footage. That’s what we brought into the edit suite and began to start the film from.
Q: Having reported on the AIDS epidemic in New York during the '80s and '90s, was it difficult for you to immerse yourself in that time again? What were some of the other challenges you faced making this documentary?
A: It was something that I didn’t necessarily relish to go back and remember my own emotional journey through that period. Being a gay man and living in the community at the time, AIDS was an epidemic that impacted me just as strongly as it did them with a couple exceptions. They chose activism, I chose journalism, and they, for the most part, were HIV positive and I never was. But for me it was kind of a healing experience to go and find the real brilliance in what was happening then and to try to bring that story out of these private video collections and make it available for people who weren’t there, who were even born after that and had no idea of this incredible grassroots movement that took foot in the worst days of the plague in the United States.
So that resistance is sort of about me, but I also encountered resistance from people whose stories I wanted to tell. They had used whatever psychological mechanisms that were available to them to attempt to rebuild a life after ’96. They had no ordinary life, which was what they were struggling so mightily to have the right to. Across the board, they didn’t relish coming back and talking to me about those years and what they did during those years. Convincing them was tough and it took a lot of work and a lot of handholding and a lot of understanding. As a person that had experienced those years as well, it was about how to help them be ready to build that bridge back to their past.
Q: In your opinion, what do you think are some of the biggest issues still affecting advocates and those infected with HIV? Why do you think the timing was right for this film?
A: Well you know, AIDS never went away and these pills, as miraculous as they are, are still a stopgap. We still need a cure and we still need an effective way to prevent transition. There are still in this country 55,000 new cases of HIV every year and that’s criminal, that we haven’t figured out how to stop that. I hope that the film draws attention to those real needs on the ground, including that most people that have HIV don’t have access to the drugs because they don’t have access to health care or the drugs are too expensive for them or they live in a part of the world where even the idea of seeing a doctor in their lifetimes is remote.
The only kind of thing that’s going to change that, the only thing that’s going to create that kind of political will to get those pills out to the people and to save their lives is going to be activism and advocacy. By which I mean to say, there’s a lot of work left. I know that people when they watch “How to Survive a Plague,” they get this kind of inspiration, they get charged up, they want to do something – especially young people. I say to them, here’s something to do: Help your government. Help the U.N. and the World Health Organization. Help the charities like Bill Clinton’s and Bill & Melinda Gates’. Help them get that stuff out there.
Q: Overall, how would you describe your experience with “How to Survive a Plague,” from the overwhelming response from audiences to the Oscar nomination?
A: It has been just an amazing journey. Certainly one that I dreamed of but never expected that I’d be able to follow. People were ready and are ready, I think, to go back and embrace this history – not as the history of the gay community, but as a key and transformative piece of American history. That’s what I think we’ve been able to establish in the run for the film so far, and the Oscar nomination makes that even much more likely now.
Q: To wrap things up, what were some of your favorite documentaries and films in general of last year?
A: You know, there was a ton of really good documentaries last year. The shortlist for the Academy Awards encompassed some of the most brilliant documentaries ever made and many of them didn’t even get nominated. I think of “The Queen of Versailles” – great film. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” – great film and really beautifully done. Even “The Central Park Five,” only a recent film but that’s really, really great. Interestingly, it covers the same timeframe as my film does in the same city that my film does. It really was what everybody else in New York was paying attention to while everyone was dying. I love the fact that they’re both out together now and can be seen as companions.
Those are great films and certainly the films that are nominated alongside “How to Survive a Plague” are just really wonderful; all of them would deserve the Academy Award. It’s too bad they can’t have ties and triple-ties and quadruple ties. Unfortunately, I think we’re just going to have to walk away with it. [Laughs.]
“How to Survive a Plague” will be showing at the Sedona International Film Festival at noon on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at Harkins Sedona 6 and noon on Friday, March 1, at the Mary D. Fisher Theatre. For more information about the film, visit www.surviveaplague.com. For more information about the festival and the 158 other films playing there from Feb. 23 – March 3, visit www.sedonafilmfestival.org.