L: Film Poster; R: David France © Karine Laval,
How to Survive a Plague captures a nation at its crossroads. Told through a string of never-seen-before video snippets filmed during the 1980’s, at a time when the AIDS epidemic had cast a shroud of fear over the united states, the documentary depicts the courageous story of a fearless army of aids activists who took to the streets to stop Aids from becoming a looming death sentence. Through urgent and frantic guerrilla street antics, they barged into pharmaceutical industries, expediting the process of recognizing the right drugs for patients. A powerful retelling of a fledgling movement that snowballed into a revolutionary phenomenon, the film celebrates the unsung heroes of AIDS activism, underscoring that insurmountable courage can indeed shake the world. Formerly the senior editor of Newsweek and currently functioning as a contributing editor at New York Magazine, I spoke to David France, a renowned journalist and author whose directorial debut was nominated this year for an Academy in the documentary feature category.
You have been a journalist all your life. How did documentary filmmaking become a part of your career?
Well, for some time I wanted to look back at the plague years in the United States and try to make sense of what happened; to try and see what the legacy of those years of AIDS is and what kind of lessons have been learnt. And so, the first thing I did was to go back and look at this incredible body of video tapes that people had collected all those years. The video camera was a relatively new kind of technology then and had been adopted pretty thoroughly by AIDS activists at the time. So I thought I could maybe recall some of the texture of that time by going back to the footage and found that the footage itself told the story in a way that was really unique, immediate and powerful. So that’s why I turned to documentary filmmaking as a way to try and use that footage and bring it to a new audience and generation of people who may not have been there and allow them to experience it that way. It was a different kind of storytelling for me, after all my years of print journalism and book writing. But I think in this case, documentary was a really effective tool for telling a story - for letting people know what it felt like back then and what it was like to live in that kind of uncertainty, wondering from one minute to the next whether you’d even be alive or the person next to you would be alive, and whether your loved ones would survive it.
What urged you to narrate this story? And how personal is the subject to you?
Well, I began my journalism career writing about AIDS in the early ‘80s, even before it was called AIDS. And it was my response to the epidemic since it attacked my community - the gay community in New York before anybody else and it attacked it viciously. And we all were called upon to do something in response and journalism was what I took on as my task and contribution. So that put me on the ground in 1987, when activism began. I was deeply invested, as a person in the community and as a person whose friends and loved ones were being threatened by the plague. So it’s a very personal story for me, but I approached it in a very impersonal way, as a journalist, especially in the area of the science around the research initiatives that were being undertaken.
Film Still, © Donna Binder (Sundance Selects).
The fight against the epidemic was not only a fight for the right drugs to exist in the market, but it was also a battle against prejudices. Could you share a few examples to support this?
I know a lot of young people in America were shocked to learn that this was true in our history but the level of hatred towards gay people was remarkable back then, and it paralyzed the government and the public health system in the US. So the first thing the activists had to take on was the stigma and the political disenfranchisement of the community and to build a path from this isolated and detested community back into the mainstream of society, and we see that in the first couple of scenes in How To Survive A Plague, in how people were trying to just be recognized as patients deserving health care.
What was already established as a truth in 1987 was that this hatred for gay people had turned violent. If, in a community it was found that a person living in one of the houses had HIV or AIDS, the community would rally around an expulsion effort to expel them from their home. And if they refused to go (and this was happening throughout the country), vigilantes would set fire to their homes. If children with HIV enrolled in schools, the schools would close down. Other parents would refuse to allow their children to go and attend the school with these kids. There were discussions at a national policy level about building large camps to put people with HIV in, as a way to quarantine the disease. So rather than treating the people, rather than working on campaigns that would empower to pre- vent transmission, they were talking about criminalizing people with HIV. And these were real proposals, the hostility was really widely held. So how bad was it? It was terrible.
Film Still © Donna Binder
How did the making of the documentary transform you as a filmmaker and more importantly, as a human being?
This was a period of time that I lived through in which I lost many friends to the disease and for me the act of going back and revisiting it was a difficult and emotional process. When you live through something like that, you find tricks and mechanisms to allow yourself to move on and one of them is to take all those memories and all that unprocessed grief and put it somewhere where it won’t get in your way. And all of that gets shaken up when you go back to a project like this, that you yourself have witnessed and for me, that was a really difficult ride. I worked on the film for three years and in the end I think the process of doing that was a healing one for me and gave me back my past in a way that allowed it to be more understandable and allowed me to look at it clearly, to no longer avoid it.
What do you want the audience to take away from the documentary?
I want the audience to first of all, know what happened - to know that the reason 8 million people are alive on these medications today is not because the system of research, science and medicine simply took care of it, but that it took massive grass root, street-level movements to make it possible. So in repeating that history and transmitting that history to new generations who didn’t experience that themselves, I also want people to remember that it is possible for ‘otherly’, disenfranchised people to effect change and that way, the story is very inspiring for people who are looking at any number of insurmountable problems and see that they have the capacity as individuals and collectively, to make a difference.
This article was initially published in our May/June 2013 issue and is a part of our extensive archive.
Text Radhika Iyengar