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Filmmaker David France Talks ’How To Survive a Plague’

by Jim Halterman
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Feb 21, 2013

With the 85th Academy Awards being held this weekend, much of the attention is on the big categories such as Best Picture and Best Director; but there will be quite a few eyeballs on the highly competitive Best Documentary Feature category.

"5 Broken Cameras," "The Gatekeepers," "The Invisible War" and "Searching For Sugar Man" are all in the race for the gold statuette and while all films are important in their own right, first-time filmmaker David France and his film "How To Survive A Plague" stands apart from them. What makes the doc hugely important is its thorough history of the AIDS epidemic and the ways it continues to impact society.

France knows first-hand the story he chronicles so vividly in his film: he lived in the epicenter of the epidemic during its first decade. He came to New York from the not-gay-friendly city of Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1981, settling in Manhattan's East Village the same week, it turned out, that the New York Times reported a mysterious illness that was killing gay men in their 30s and 40s.

"I came to New York to be free, and that's what met me," he told the New York Times last December.

During early 1980s, he became a journalist with the gay press, focusing on the growing health crisis. He wrote tirelessly about it. In 1991, his boyfriend of five years, Doug Gould, died of the disease. "I assumed I was positive, too," he told the Times, "and I never did contract HIV," he said, "by some miracle."

After the success of retroviruses changed the face of AIDS in the late 1990s, France moved on from covering the subject to become a successful journalist as an editor at Newsweek and a contributor to such publications as GQ, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone . He has written three books, including "Our Fathers," an acclaimed investigation of the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis, and the New York Times bestseller "The Confession," with Governor James E. McGreevey.

In 2009, he took a break from journalism to begin making "How To Survive a Plague" with hopes of bringing attention to those who had worked on the front lines of AIDS activism and care.

"So he set out with a small film crew and began collecting video footage from the era," continued the Times story. "He also met with more than a dozen prominent activists and veterans of the movement who appear in the film, which charts the journey of the disease from the first days, when a rare skin cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma began mysteriously appearing on the bodies of gay men all over New York, until the advent of antiretrovirals 15 years later."

A hit on the film festival circuits, the film opened to universal acclaim (a rare 100% approval on Rotten Tomatoes) by critics last September. In reviewing the film in the New York Times, critic Stephen Holden wrote: "The film is a briskly paced, straightforward chronology made up largely of footage shot mostly by the protesters (31 videographers are credited) and told in their voices. As the documentary gallops forward, it conveys the urgency of a desperate race against time. Many of the group’s leaders were HIV-positive men facing imminent death."

Subsequently the film won awards for best documentary of 2012 from the Gotham Independent Film Awards and from the Boston Society of Film Critics. In addition to its Oscar nomination, it is up for an Independent Spirit Award (given out this Saturday) for Best Documentary.

EDGE talked with France recently to get his take on his Academy Award nomination and how he put the film together.

Putting the crisis in perspective

EDGE: The film has already received a lot of nominations and acclaim, but an Oscar nomination is about as major as they get. How does that feel at this point just before the Oscars?

David France: It’s an amazingly good feeling. I try not to take it for granted because I know there are so many incredible filmmakers who’ve made documentaries for years with this goal in mind, and this being my first, it just feels incredible. But here’s why it is important: It gives the film more life. You know. It makes it so that we get to talk about ’How to Survive a Plague.’ We get to talk about this incredible AIDS legacy.

EDGE: You’ve been reporting on this story for decades so I’m curious if you were able to distance yourself as a director to put the history in perspective?

David France: Actually, that was a tough process. I actually watch movies. I tried to understand what a movie is, what the conventions of movie-making are, and how to tell stories in that form. I think that process did allow me to kind of step away from the information itself, the documentation of this period, and just see it more in cinematic terms. If that make sense. It certainly impacted the way I structured the film.

A different approach

EDGE: You made a choice to make this a very personal film which uses in its narration a lot of different voices, either from the past or reflecting back from the present. This pretty much differs from the more standard approach of having a celebrity (usually associated with the cause) handle the narration. Why this approach?

David France: It was both a decision and an opportunity. What I discovered in three years of doing research that there was this incredible broad and deep body of archival video, shot from that time, and that told an intimate story. It allowed me to tell this epic tale of disease and the response to it by focusing tightly on a few people and their own journeys through that ten year period. I don’t think most filmmakers have that opportunity to find the story already captured in somebody else’s footage. I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do in my journalism. I have always tried to use individual stories in a way to get at the bigger and more profound truths. So, I brought that approach to this project.

But what I didn’t know was how intimate the footage was. I didn’t know, for example, that Ray Navarro, who was a major artist in the AIDS epic, had been creating this really personal body of footage about his own actions during those years, that culminated in... shooting himself... filming himself at the hospital during his last hospitalization. So, I didn’t know that the witnessing was as thorough as it was; kind of behind the curtains of what these people were doing, and that was impressive. It was impressive because it is evidence and a reminder that, even though they knew they were dying, they felt that there was some importance to what they had accomplished and they wanted to make sure that it was recorded for all time, for people to know. That impressed me really deeply.

Getting distance

EDGE: You’ve covered the story as a journalist since the early days. Why did you decide to make the film in the past few years?

David France: I think, half of that, you have to understand psychology a little, is at an eye view. What I’ve noticed is that, if you look back, for example, at other periods of tragedy and response, that once those periods kind of draw to a close, it takes a number of years for historians to go back and start asking questions, really fundamental questions, about what that period of time meant. What legacy did it leave? What did we learn from it?

I think it took me over a decade, after the effective medications came out in ’96 that really changed the epidemic so dramatically. So, I looked back and began to ask those questions and I guess I started that in 2009 and then, the delay was just part of filmmaking process.

EDGE: It was interesting because, as a viewer, the part of the film where you see the footage of Bill Clinton and how that changed things from the previous Presidents and the fact that we had discussion in our government of the fight against AIDS... that hadn’t happened before. And then we just had Barack Obama talking about same-sex marriage in his inaugural speech and I thought, ’wow, I don’t know if all those things would have happened if we hadn’t had that period in the 80s and 90s.’

David France: If we had not broken through that. Yeah. If we had not survived. I think your observation is, actually true. Our movement for gay equality is rooted in the epidemic. Activism came ten years or fifteen years after Stonewall and a lot of that time was spent kind of laying the groundwork, establishing institutions and getting ready (for change). But there had been very little in the way of accomplishments. Then AIDS struck and only after the massive grassroots organizing that AIDS engendered, did we began to see some progress.

For more information about "How To Survive a Plague", visit the film’s website

Jim Halterman lives in Los Angeles and also covers the TV/Film/Theater scene for www.FutonCritic.com, AfterElton, Vulture, CBS Watch magazine and, of course, www.jimhalterman.com. He is also a regular Tweeter and has a group site on Facebook.


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