Interview: David France on Reliving the AIDS Crisis in the Oscar Shortlisted “How to Survive a Plague”

A journalist who witnessed the AIDS crisis and the revolution in finding a way to cure it firsthand offers not just a new perspective to himself, but to all...
A scene of AIDS activists in David France's documentary "How to Survive a Plague"

The initial cut of “How to Survive a Plague” originally ran 13 hours long, a length that no doubt was hardly adequate to tell all of the amazing stories that emerged from the height of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s and early 1990s since, as David France’s remarkable film shows, this wasn’t only a time of great tragedy but of even greater heroism as the community that was most affected by the virus wasn’t weakened by the condition but instead emboldened to find a cure.

Yet to be any longer than its eventual two-hour running time would’ve robbed “How to Survive a Plague” of its urgency, the defining element of the activist coalitions ACT UP and TAG’s insistent but meticulous surge to go beyond the traditional ground game of broad civil protests to directly grab the attention of the pharmaceutical industry that could help them. Like the courageous leaders of the movement shown raising hell in the film such as Bob Rafsky and Peter Staley, France was uniquely suited to make the definitive film about this era, having chronicled firsthand the fight for a cure to HIV for the likes of the New York Times and Newsweek as it has unfolded for the past three decades. The result is a uniquely affecting film, comprised almost exclusively of archival footage culled from over 700 hours of film and video provided to the production by the activists at the center of it all, that still somehow speaks as much about the present as it does about the past.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak to France about the film for an article at TakePart, but with the film recently shortlisted for a Best Documentary Oscar and its recent debut on Netflix Instant in addition to iTunes and Amazon, here’s the full conversation which encompasses the filmmaker’s reluctance to revisit such an emotionally wrenching period, the possibility of maintaining an archive of all footage related to the AIDS crisis and the film’s bittersweet ending.

Why now for this film?

Alright, it’s a tough one. So why now? I started working on this about three years ago and I felt that there was a kind of error in the way we have remembered the plague years in AIDS historically. What’s been in films and plays and books about those early years of the epidemic casts it as a time almost exclusively of death and carnage. It was those things, but it was also a period of incredible political and scientific advances led by the community that was being affected by the disease. There was agency, there was revolution in AIDS [research] that had never really been remembered. You had to be there to know that it happened and I was surprised that no one had taken up the challenge to try to tell that part of the story.

Part of the problem was that right after 1996 when the effective medication finally came out, there was a period of time where people didn’t want to talk about AIDS anymore. It had dominated the news media for 15 years at that point and there was a lot of fatigue around it. That was even true of people who had spent those 15 years in the trenches. So I think we took a break and never really went back to it to try to make sense of what those years meant and how they changed our culture. That was my goal with the film was to try to get the bigger picture about what happened in AIDS and how it happened. 

Was it difficult to immerse yourself in this time again?

It really was. And I’m in a lot of that footage. I’m in the film, in the background. I was a reporter at the time for daily newspapers, covering AIDS for Newsday and the New York Times, so I was a witness to it from very close up. In a way it was really remarkable to find all that footage, to be able to not just tell the story about what happened then, but to actually go back then to see it as it was happening.

It was tough. There would be bits of tape that we would find that would really hit me in a really emotional way. The most powerful of that being the footage of Bob Rafsky – although I knew these folks as sources, he was the only person that I considered a friend and to see him again and spend that kind of time with him was for me very rewarding. 

The flip side of that question is even though you were involved in it as much as you were, did this give you a new perspective on it?

The short answer is yes because I was not privy to a lot of that behind the curtain kind of activity they were engaged in as a reporter. They were there with their own cameras, shooting it, but they were not there with reporters. When they forced their way into the Halls of Science, they were there on their own, so I knew that individuals, mostly people with HIV themselves, played a key role in bringing about so many changes and reforms to health care and to pharmaceutical research. But I didn’t know how they did it and it wasn’t until looking at this footage that they had captured and saved that I was able to see really what they had pulled off and really the brilliance of their strategy to get it. 

That’s one of the most amazing thing sabout the film is how, regardless of the cause that’s being fought for, this offers such a striking tutorial on how to create a durable and effective organization to speak truth to power. Was it difficult to portray that in a compelling way?

You’re right. Nobody wants a story about an organization, right? Like how you build this group and what happened with the group, but as I started to sketch it out in the early days as we were going through the old footage, I realized that it’s really like a medical thriller in the Hollywood mold, only it’s real. And there it was in video cassettes that people had stashed under their beds and in closets and in storage units and it was all right there, this thriller. That’s the discovery that we made that we realized we’d drive the film with. 

At Outfest, you spoke about digitizing some of these tapes for the purposes of the film and in effect, preserving them. Are there plans to do anything beyond the film to archive them and possibly make them available to the public?

There are over 30 individual shooters whose work comprises the film. and I made a promise to all the people [who lent their footage] that I would come back and talk to them about their life’s work and to see if we could come up collectively with an idea about what to do with it. I don’t own any of it, of course. I didn’t shoot but a few frames that are in the film, but I think it all should go some central place. We digitized 700 hours of footage, using these preservationist standards and because the video was so old, we didn’t look at any of the video before we digitized it. Every time you run the tape and put a head on that tape, the images degrade further. So when we brought in people’s collections, we couldn’t cherry pick in them because that would’ve further damaged their work. We would bring in libraries and from the first tape to the last, we would preserve the entire library and then look through it. So we’ve got a ton of stuff. The New York Public Library has a collection of AIDS activist videos, but they’re kind of over their heads with it and don’t know what to do with it. I got some of my footage from there, but it’s really hard to access. Institutionally, the first step would be to somehow find endowment support for a collection. 

I certainly don’t think it’s your responsibility, but at the same time, it seemed like such a wonderful opportunity.

I know. My [executive producer] Joy Thompson and I have spoken about it because we realize that, especially going through this with our film, how close to losing all that footage we were. Another year, another five years, another ten years, how much of that would be useable because it’s being stored in these suboptimal conditions. We thought we have to start raising the money, but we’ve been a bit consumed with trying to get our film into theaters, so maybe that’s something we’ll approach next year.

What you’d like people to take away from the film?

The call to action in the film is to inspire people to know what the power of the individual is. That individuals can conquer the most seemingly unconquerable challenge. That’s what these guys taught us in the most amazing way. When people when they see the film, their first response is what can we do? We’re thinking of the film as kind of a wormhole through which people can climb right into organizations that are doing work on the next challenge in AIDS, which is these pills exist, but not everybody can afford them.

It’s amazing you can make a film that ends on such a triumphant note and yet it’s so clearly not over.

Right. It is possible to survive this plague. That’s the great news. [laughs] Unfortunately, it’s still going to take a really clever movement to make that actually happen.

“How to Survive a Plague” recently reopened at the IFC Center in New York and will play across the country through the new year. A full list of dates and locations can be found here. It also recently became available on Netflix Watch Instantly and is available through iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.

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