Award winning journalist and first-time filmmaker David France shows us why documentary is one of the most powerful mediums in the world in How to Survive a Plague, his intimate and visceral recreation of the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic. Told through very personal stories of some of the leading participants, his film captures the social activism and innovation of two coalitions, ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), whose courageous push for action and epic day-by-day battles finally succeeded in turning AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition and made AIDS survival possible.
France talked to me about his journey from veteran journalist to documentary filmmaker, what drew him to this fascinating story, how he culled through hundreds of hours of never-before-seen archival footage from the 1980s and ‘90s – much of it shot by the activists themselves — and transformed it into a compelling 110-minute film, the most personally rewarding aspect of his filmmaking experience, the legacy of ACT UP today, his reaction to the film’s Academy Award nomination, and how the film is now inspiring grassroots activism in a new generation. Hit the jump to read more:
Question: Can you talk about your journey from being a journalist to a documentarian? What drew you to this fascinating story and convinced you to make your first feature documentary about AIDS activism?
David France: I have a 30-year career in print journalism and I started in print journalism really as my response to the AIDS epidemic. The first journalism that I did was trying to find answers when there were so few and to disseminate these answers to the community that was desperate for any sort of information. I started working in the gay press as an AIDS reporter. As a person who was on the ground early on, by 1987, when AIDS activism took this form of ACT UP and this grassroots mass movement, I was the first reporter to report on ACT UP. And then, I attended the majority of their meetings and continued covering the work that they were doing, but largely focusing my reporting on science. I was kind of a science AIDS news reporter. That’s why I knew something about the various individuals who were in this one committee in ACT UP, the Treatment and Data Committee, which I had followed relatively closely as a journalist. I knew what they had accomplished, and I knew the process that they went through to arm themselves with the knowledge that they needed to have actual meaningful interactions with the Nobel Prize winners, researchers, scientists who were working with the compounds that would ultimately prove so powerful and effective in ending the death period, the plague period of the epidemic.
A couple of years ago, I thought it seemed time to go back to those plague years and see what lessons we learned from them to try and measure the legacy of AIDS. When I turned back the clock, I realized that I wanted to tell their story, the story of AIDS treatment activism, and the dawn of a modern patient advocacy movement now replicated across the board in other health areas. I thought, as part of this potential project of mine, I should go back and review some of the videotapes that I knew were being collected from that time. That video made me realize and remember that the cameras were everywhere in AIDS activism. That video activism was part of or a thread of what was happening within AIDS activism, and I thought well, that’s part of the story, the fact that the video camera is in fact one of the characters in that history. And that, of course, instilled in me the idea that a documentary was the way to tell the story.
You’ve assembled a stunning array of period footage with interview subjects. How did you decide which people to focus on and then edit that into a compelling 110-minutes film?
France: We brought in hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage. I had a team of PA’s and production coordinators who were working on the project. We had, at one point, a dozen people who were reviewing footage, transcribing the footage, and identifying and finding our main characters who were sometimes in the background. Sometimes they would look at a one-hour tape and one of our people would walk through it in the very last frame. We were just gathering notes on where our characters were within this footage. The footage was all unindexed. It was shot right in the heat of the battle as it were. Most of the tapes that we brought in didn’t even have dates on them much less cities. Then, once we identified our individuals, we had a wall of photographs. We called it our Wanted Wall. It had the photographs of our main people, and some of whom, like Garance Franke-Ruta, frequently changed their appearance. So, we would have to have pictures of her at various ages and pictures of her in various iterations and hairstyles and eyeglasses. And then, people would call out when they discovered one of the people. What’s that game you play? Is it called “Finding Waldo.”
Yes, it’s actually called “Where’s Waldo.”
France: It was like that. That’s how we started narrowing our footage down. We had to do the research to try to put all that footage in a chronological order, and then we edited from there. We edited into a script that I had drawn of the story as I knew it, and some of that was amplified, and some of that was corrected by the evidence in the footage. That began to tell us the true story of what happened there. When we finished, we were working in two cutting rooms simultaneously to make it through all this footage. When we finished our first assembly, our first cut of the film, it was 13 hours long, and it told the step by step of nine years of this battle through the eyes of these five or six or seven people. It was all there, but 13 hours was as though we were experiencing the entire plague epidemic again. We knew we needed to make it into a digestible film. Then, the craft of storytelling took precedence over the work that we had accomplished already, and we boiled that down to this 110-minute film.
How did the history of what had taken place influence your storytelling and the way you approached your production?
France: Well, I knew that the story we were telling was how we got out of the plague, and I knew that that was drugs. And, I knew that the activists whose stories I wanted to tell had developed really effective working relationships with the scientists inside the pharmaceutical industry, inside the NIH (National Institutes of Health), etc. But I didn’t really know how that happens, so that, for me, was kind of the big surprise. It was that those researchers would play such a pivotal role in the film as well as the history and that they would be willing to talk about that as well. One of the things that one of the ACT UP members said to me was, “When we first knocked down the doors in the pharmaceutical industry and came face to face with the representative of big pharma, we felt we would be looking in the eye of monstrous people.” What they found instead were humans trying to do the right thing, but not necessarily knowing what the right thing would look like. That’s when they joined in this kind of collective approach. That defined the story and I think makes it a unique tale in that way.
How do you feel the work of ACT UP and TAG influenced and changed today’s culture and attitudes? How is it different today because of what these AIDS activists were able to accomplish in the 1980’s and 90’s?
France: The very first thing that had to be established, and it’s hard to remember this, and it’s hard for people who weren’t there to grasp, is that AIDS activists first had to establish the humanity of gay people. During those first six years of the epidemic, nothing was being done and no money was being spent. The only response delayed from the White House came six years into the epidemic after tens of thousands of people had died, and it came in the form of a series of jokes at the White House. People like Jesse Helms were standing on the floor of the Senate cheering the death of gay people by AIDS and HIV because it was proving to them some sort of moral point that they thought made sense at that time, that this is the result of God’s fury at last. It took a real movement to say, “No, we’re people. It’s a viral epidemic and we are human beings who deserve compassion at the very least. As Americans, we deserve a government response to this crisis to save our lives.”
The very first thing to that is the foundation on which the modern Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement was built. Were it not for the AIDS epidemic and the response of the community to it, we wouldn’t have these ongoing battles and victories state by state over gay marriage, for example, or over equal access in rights in employment. That’s pretty phenomenal for the fact that it happened in such a short period of time if you think about it — in thirty years, to have gone from a community with no role in civic life to being as powerful and endorsed and embraced and cherished as the community is now. President Obama’s inaugural address was really the culmination of this movement to date to bring it to the point where for the very first time we hear a President endorsing the broad agenda for lesbian and gay rights as a significant position in his new term. To say that this is what we’re going to accomplish. This is what we’re going to do with this group of Americans whom we consider family. That was cool.
And then, there was all this fundamental transformation that was done in science and in health from the way doctors and patients interact. Before AIDS, that was a very hierarchical relationship and AIDS changed that. AIDS patients would not have it any other way. It broke down the princely role of the physician, and that continues to this day in just about every doctor’s office where you really have a dialogue now between patients and doctors. Research — the way new drug compounds are identified, the way they’re researched, the way the patient community is incorporated into those decisions, the way the NIH designs drug trials, the way the FDA reviews and regulates new drug compounds — all of that was the direct creation of AIDS activists, and specifically these AIDS activists that had to survive a plague. They brought revolutionary concepts to that entire process, and we all benefited from it. They were the first patients to clamor through the doors at research institutes, and now almost every aspect of disease research and pharmaceutical research has what they call community advisory boards, CABs, with members of the affected community or their advocates, sitting not just on the marketing side or the regulating side, but on the other side of the bench where new ideas are being developed about what to begin to study and research, and what compounds to look at, and how to look at them. What we owe to AIDS activism in the area of health care is really profound.
What was the most personally rewarding aspect of your filmmaking experience?
France: That’s really interesting because there’s been so much that’s been rewarding about it, but I’ll just tell one part. There’s a young girl in the film, Sara Rafsky, whose dad dies, and we see her at his funeral, and she’s bereft as a 7- or 8-year-old girl at the loss of her dad. I went to her when I was looking for footage, as I went to many people, and said, “What do you have at home?” She’s now in her early twenties. She had put everything from that period, from her dad’s life, in a box that was at the bottom of her closet. She agreed with me to go into that box, and we delved into memories which are very vague and spotty for her, but into her own past. That process continued into the making of the film and through the completion of the film. Sara came with me to Sundance last January and came up to the stage with me afterwards to a round of wild applause when they realized that she had grown up and there she was in person. And then, somebody asked her what the process was like for her, and she said, “Every little girl thinks their dad is a movie star and now I know that mine is.” That was my favorite moment, I think, to see her come around to that and to get to know her dad. She did not know him and she learned who he was through this footage. She worked on the film. She was a PA on the film and she immersed herself, not just in her dad’s story but in her dad’s community, and now that broken connection has been repaired.
How did you feel when you heard your film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary?
France: (laughs) Well, I don’t know. How’s a person supposed to feel? I felt like it’s an incredible opportunity. I felt that the reason you do a story like this and the reason you tell a story like this is because you want the world to know it. The nomination itself puts us in a whole new category of recognition, of name recognition, of interest. Just to know that we’ll have how many seconds to have the name of the film mentioned and a clip of the film played on that probably most coveted platform in the world is stunning. That’s why you do this and that’s what we got.
France: Well I hope, and I’ve seen aspects of it, that it will and can inspire people to take on things they thought were insurmountable. An organization called the Student Global AIDS Campaign signed up with the film right from the very beginning and said, “We want to show this film on campuses around the country.” Through the course of rolling the film out across the country, they increased the number by three hundred fold of the chapters of the Student Global AIDS Campaign now organizing students to try and put pressure on their governments and then the non-profit agencies and the non-governmental organizations to get the drugs out to the people that need them. The drugs exist, the prices are good, and they will save lives. But we’ve got to get the drugs out and just knowing that that movement has been revitalized as a result of the film has been great.
I know the film has also been taken up by non-AIDS grassroots activists. It’s being shown in Moscow at underground screenings for the Pro-Democracy Movement as a way to understand strategy approaches and organizational issues and decision-making stuff because of the democracy of grassroots activism. That’s really cool. The U.S. State Department has adopted How to Survive a Plague for showing around the world in Embassies in furtherance of Secretary Clinton’s policy announced last year that linked U.S. foreign policy to lesbian and gay rights issues for the first time ever. So, the film is being used to show diplomats in other countries where the gay movement came from and what it’s capable of. That’s really incredible. And then, 350.org, which is the organization working on climate change, has adopted the film as being an inspiration and blueprint for their work, and they’ll be beginning a national series of hundreds of screenings of it. And the same with Planned Parenthood which throughout the South and Southwest has been doing screenings with their members to show the origin of patient advocacy, of where it came from, and to show the power of activism to their members at a time when grassroots activism has a kind of resurgence in the public imagination. So I think the film does have some of that ancillary power that you’re asking about.
Your film not only provides an opportunity for a new generation to learn about what happened when the AIDS epidemic struck in the 1980s, but also to appreciate the power of social activism and how it can have a major impact when people get organized.
France: Absolutely. When people under the age of 30 watch this film, it’s really interesting to see their reaction. They really watch it the way you would watch a medical thriller, and at the end they’re thrilled. They’re jazzed at the end of it when they get up and they want to find something to do in their own lives that would be as meaningful as this, and then that’s the discussions that we have in the Q&A’s afterwards. “What should I be doing? How can I have some of that really meaningful life experience? How can I contribute? Where can I contribute in a lasting way to social justice?” It’s really an amazing thing to watch and to see the germs of ideas in people’s lives about what to do.
What are you working on next? I understand you’re writing a book on the history of AIDS?
France: I am. I’m writing a narrative history book for Alfred A. Knopf. Book writing was what I was busy doing before the film, so it feels good to be back at it.
Do you see another film in your future?
France: I do. I absolutely do. I had way too much fun making this movie. It was so challenging and so I want to get back to it.
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE is playing in select theaters across the country, as well as available on Netflix Watch Instantly, iTunes and Video On Demand.