If there is one documentary to see this season it’s David France’s How to Survive a Plague. Both intimate and epic, political and personal, the film traces the extraordinary efforts of AIDS activists—in particular the New York-based coalition ACT UP—from the late 80s to the mid 90s. We know of the tremendous loss of these years. But France explores the lesser-known story of how a traumatized community fought for compassionate healthcare from a government that first treated them as pariahs. By focusing on the social movement rather than the progression of the illness, France’s documentary upturns the narrative of decline that has clung to films about AIDS until now. The result is a powerful tapestry of voices and stories that combine to tell a true story of hope, outrage, resilience, and camaraderie.
When I spoke to David France on the phone I found a man as surprising as his film—by turns serious and funny, passionate and responsive. France is the kind of generous storyteller who wants to know how you personally respond to his work.
You covered the AIDS crisis as a journalist. When did the idea for a film come to you?
It came in slow circles of revelation. I knew I wanted to go back and tell a broader story than had been told about those years—a story about how the community responded. And how their response to AIDS changed everything we know about the healthcare world. I wanted to tell a story about the legacy of AIDS activism.
I started by going back to some of the videotapes that had been shot at the time. There was a plethora of cameras involved in AIDS activism. It was the first social justice movement to begin taking its own video; it was the first time it was possible! When I back to the footage I realized the story was right there. It was right there in the tapes.
Was it difficult to revisit that period in the editing room? Did it bring up dormant emotions?
I wasn’t one of those activists; but I was certainly living the crisis alongside them. I was struggling with AIDS in my own little world—just like everybody else. You know, it was tough watching the footage but it was also empowering. I forgot how much humor was involved in AIDS activism! And how much brilliant innovation there was on the ground. And how central activism was involved in the science. Together both worked so that AIDS would be survivable.
There’s a remarkable array of stories told by the film—both the broader story of ACT UP but also the intimate lives of so many remarkable people. Did you know the spine you wanted to follow from the beginning?
That was part of the campaign of just finding enough footage to tell a story that was as real as life was during those years. I think the film comes out as if it were intentionally shot, like a documentary that was put on the shelf.
How did you find so much amazing footage?
I knew that the NYPL had an archive of what ACT UP shot itself. And all the unedited master tapes were there. I went through all those tapes and identified the key characters whose stories I wanted to tell. But then from that footage I noticed there were other cameras that hadn’t been archived. It became a detective job of identifying who those people were with cameras on their shoulders in the margins of the frame. Were they alive? That was the first question. And if they were alive, how could I find them? And if they weren’t alive, was there any way their lovers or families had saved the footage? Ultimately I pulled in the footage of thirty individuals—people who knew that what was happening before their eyes was extraordinary
The film is so much about the editing. Did you edit it yourself?
We had two cutting rooms and brought in 700 hours of tape. This was the key footage. Then we had work to render that raw footage into under two hours. I worked with two great editors (T. Woody Richman & Tyler H. Walk) who both brought fresh eyes to the project. For them it was hidden piece of history. They helped me look at the footage and find what parts would resonate.
Have you shown the film to younger gay men who may not have lived through the 80s and 90s? What has their response been?
I think the response from young people—whether they’re gay, lesbian, trans or straight—has been a sense of real empowerment and inspiration. I think they take away this profoundly American idea that anything is possible. Even the most disenfranchised and powerless people can find a way to approach a towering problem and make a difference. The first question people always ask me after a screening is, “What can I do? How can I get involved?” I think people feel called to join in the battle and that’s really exciting to watch.
The film ends on a note full of hope. The mission has been accomplished, multi-drug treatment has been pioneered. But its also a bittersweet ending. There’s this sense of looking back. And after living day-to-day, now-what? There seems to be another story that comes after the story.
How to survive a plague is one thing. But what does survival leave you with? What is it like to have made it through the darkness? That’s an aspect of the AIDS crisis that has not yet been explored fully. And surely that’s just as important as the years that I cover in the film. I’m fascinated by what the act of witnessing leaves you with. It’s so true. You’re left with this almost disorientation at the end of a battle like that. You’ve given everything to it. While people not in battle were starting careers, building families, opening savings accounts. They were doing things in ordinary life that couldn’t be done in this extraordinary crucible.
What’s next for you? Any plans to continue in filmmaking?
I am finishing a book—a history of the second half of the plague years. That’s next on my plate. But after that I’d like to go back in the documentary world and see if there’s another story of equally epic scope.