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DVD Release: How To Survive A Plague – A chat with filmmaker David France

March 26, 2014

DVDFilm + EntertainmentInterview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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In a socio-political climate where being gay is still an issue despite many steps forward in the path to equality, a film like How To Survive A Plague couldn’t be more timely and relevant. This is documentary filmmaking at its finest and it’s quite impressive as a film debut from journalist and writer David France, given the confident and assertive way he grabs the audience’s attention from frame one and doesn’t let go of it until the gut-wrenching, powerful finale.

The film follows a group of young activists and sheds light on the untold story of their fight for survival and basic human rights during the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York all the way to the first medical breakthrough in the mid 90s when the terrifying epidemic looked no more like the death sentence it had been until then. But what most of us don’t know, especially if like me you had just been born when the AIDS outbreak began, is the pivotal role these activists played in reaching the scientific discoveries that gave people hope for survival.

When people were dying left and right, when the pharmaceutical companies, the FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) and the government were in cahoots, only caring about profits and dismissing the epidemic as the result of gay people’s sinful and immoral behaviour, inviting them to celibacy as the way to solve the crisis, a group of young HIV positive young men and women took the matter in their own hands. Although they had no scientific training, these brave activists infiltrated the pharmaceutical industry, helped identify new drugs and pushed to move them from experimental trials to actual patients.

It’s very touching to witness these amazing people’s courage in their fight for justice and realize how much we owe them. Especially as a gay man, I couldn’t have been more in awe of what they accomplished as I was watching the film. David France has crafted a wonderful piece of filmmaking built around original archival footage shot throughout those years and the way he puts us right in the middle of the action is outstanding. A very powerful scene comes to mind where the members of the two coalitions ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) march to the White House and spread the ashes of their lost loved ones on the presidential lawn through the gates. It is goosebumps-inducing to say the least.

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If you missed this brilliant Oscar-nominated documentary in theatres back in autumn, you have now the chance to discover it on DVD as it’s getting released on March 31st. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure and privilege to briefly chat via Skype with writer/director David France from New York. He’s a delightful person and shared a few interesting thoughts on the making of the film and the importance of its message in our day and age:

First off thank you for making this film. I was born in 1980 so obviously I didn’t get to experience all that was going on with the AIDS crisis. Your film was very eye opening and I loved the journalistic approach. I was wondering if stylistically you always intended to build it like that or maybe you’d thought of having a narrator. Even if some of the activists like Peter Staley have a central role in the story, it really feels like it’s everyone’s film.

Well, thank you so much. It’s my first film and I don’t have experience other than that in making films, although I have thirty years experience in writing non-fiction. I began the process by watching films. I didn’t have the opportunity to go to film school so I watched a film every morning, five days a week for a year and a half trying to find the language for film. I needed to understand what film was but I burned through documentaries pretty quickly and they can be a mess. So I started watching scripted films and paying attention to the way those were structured. I built the film on this found footage. It’s not that it was lost but it was footage shot by 33 different people who were all there on the ground at the time often covering the same events, so I had coverage. I had almost 800 hours of this archival footage that allowed me to go and look at each one of those meetings from various perspectives and search for different angles on individuals at those meetings and I thought that there was enough there that I could utilize and if I looked closely enough, utilize it in a way that could be standard cinematic vernacular. The opening of the film in fact I very specifically modeled after a Paul Greengrass’ film called Bloody Sunday. He makes films based on actual events and he throws you right into the middle of it. So I thought I could just have the viewer arrive right in the middle of this big crisis and make sense of the size and the stakes. I was looking for influences in language and luckily I didn’t have to use narration and I used only contemporary talking heads at the very minimum, mostly at the end of the film.

Two moments in the film stuck with me. One is when activist Peter Staley is being interviewed at CNN in the 80s and is invited to consider celibacy as the solution to the problem and later on in the 90s President Bush claims that this plague actually has a cure and that would be the choice of a different behavior. I’ve been reflecting on the title of the film and on how it feels like it could be referring to more than just the viral infection that plagued gay people but also hint at the stigma that we are usually labeled with: that of people conducting a sinful and immoral lifestyle.

I do think it’s a metaphor and it’s a metaphor for anything. It’s a metaphor for an effective strategy in community organizing that we’ve certainly seen replicated in very conscious ways by other health groups like the breast cancer movement that developed in the 90s. And it’s been picked up in other places. The political opposition in Moscow has used the film itself as part of their development strategy. They had this underground screening of it in Moscow where gay people have no rights and it’s dangerous to be gay, where gay people have been kidnapped and tortured by skinhead gangs. People who are watching the film are not prone to feel good things about gay people necessarily but in this history, this innovation of a kind of social justice movement that was created around Act Up they’re seeing a model and a blueprint for what they could do. Certainly it can be used in other parts of the world like Western Africa where things are so hideous. We’ve had great partners helping us screen the film in Africa, Eastern Europe, even Middle America which is just as backwards, who have made sure that the film becomes available in places where people are desperate for that kind of insight and encouragement and motivation.

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Do you think there’s no way to fill the audience gap between documentary filmmaking and scripted films?

Well, look at the box office. There are only 15 to 30 films that have grossed more than two million dollars and that’s just a sign of an audience that doesn’t show up. We miss the celebrity sales and that is why so many good documentaries get remade in the scripted form like we’re also doing with How To Survive A Plague. I don’t know if that’s going to be any better than the documentary. As a non-fiction person I believe in non-fiction but it could possibly increase our audience and our mission is to keep this history alive.

How To Survive A Plague is out on DVD on March 31

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor