Interview: David France of “How to Survive a Plague”

Posted on July 7, 2012 at 8:00 am

“This isn’t a movie about what AIDS did to us,” writer/director David France told me as he was preparing to present “How to Survive a Plague,” his documentary about AIDS activism at the prestigious Silverdocs film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland.  “This is a movie about what we did to AIDS.”

France made the film because most of the cultural touchstones associated with AIDS like the award-winning plays “The Normal Heart” and “Angels in America” and the book and movie “And the Band Played On” document the early years.  They are filled with images of emaciated victims, weeping friends and family and bleak prospects.  But this is a story of inspiration and triumph, as one of the most devastating diseases in modern history went from being a certain death sentence to an illness that can be managed.  More than that, the people in this movie changed the way the medical and research communities interact with patients and their families who are coping with all diseases and conditions.

The film recognizes that the activists who led the fight in what became one of the most successful public initiatives in American history deserve recognition for their extraordinary accomplishment.  In less than 15 years they were able to transform the medical options for people with HIV and AIDS and the ways that all medicines and treatment are developed.  Along the way, they established the foundation for full integration of gay members of American society, with the freedom to be themselves and love the people they love.  I spoke to director David France about the unique opportunity he had to make use of the extraordinary archive of footage used to document the movement from its earliest moments.  This is not just the story of a brave and dedicated group of activists literally fighting for their lives.  It is the story of how a heroic and remarkably effective political movement came of age, with its internal conflicts as well as the external ones.  And it is the first time any movement has had the benefit of this range and depth of documentation, an explicit commitment going back to the earliest days.

“I didn’t want to over-burnish the halos of these guys, although I do think of them as heroic. But heroism is never a direct line; it is not a single path leading you straight to victory. And as in all movements, there are sharp differences and especially over time. ‘How to Survive a Plague’ covers nine years and four Presidents and in that period we see a lot of accomplishment and a lot of failure, as with any movement. The failures, despite the accomplishments, meant people kept dying. And people who were in the trenches, comrades of people I was following, didn’t make it. The desperation that underlay turned inward, as one might expect and ultimately created real battle lines among the activists. Those I thought were essential to tell, not just because they’re true, but because that’s human nature—and the fact that they were able to accomplish what they accomplished despite that was phenomenal. That made their triumphs even more unusual, that they worked through that anger and despair and self-doubt, suspicions among one another and still found a way to their end, and their end was the development of a drug that would finally make survival possible.”

What makes the film so remarkable is its use of the extraordinary archive of footage.  In all the political movements that have been recorded over the years, this one was probably the most thoroughly documented.  France explained, “It’s the first kind of self-documented movement.  HIV was first identified in the medical literature in 1981, the summer of 1981, and the camcorder hit the stores for the first time in the summer of 1982. So, in a way, they’re like siblings—sibling epidemics, really.  They grew up together and became pandemic, right? So people involved in AIDS saw the value of the tool at a time when no one was covering AIDS. AIDS suffering was not being paid attention to. AIDS activism was ignored and the only images that we saw through the 80’s and really through the 90’s about AIDS were skeletonized patients in bed. We saw them on the news from time-to-time. We saw victims, and the people who were doing AIDS activism and knew that that was only a small fraction of the story and that the story of what was going on was really about self-empowerment and that it was brilliant, and that it was new. There was never a patient population that had identified and developed the kind of strength that this group had, and in order to be able to capture that and reflect it back to the individuals, they’d use these tools—and they started shooting everything. By 1987 when AIDS activism took full force, cameras were everywhere. From the very beginning of Act Up, they had a committee called DIVA TV, Damned Interfering Video Activists, that’s what they called themselves, DIVA, and they created TV. It was also the beginning of cable, of public access—they grabbed a public access station—and every week they would, on their public access shows, show the footage of what happened last week in a way to build the movement and to reflect back to the people who were doing it, the beauty, really, of what they were doing and to show AIDS power, to show fierceness, to show agency in AIDS at a time when that was being denied. That footage was—my thought was from the beginning that there was enough of that, because I saw those cameras—there was enough of that footage that I could create a documentary that would bring us back to that time. I brought in, ultimately, footage from thirty-three different individuals.  It was shot by activists; it was shot by video artists who would come through like the Guggenheim program, by film-makers who are now well-known, and by loved ones who just wanted to capture what the people they love looked like in their youth, knowing that that’s all they were ever going to have.”


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