I got a job working at the New York Post in 1984, but when they discovered I was gay, they fired me.
By 1987, we were six years into the AIDS epidemic, a crisis that was being largely ignored by government officials and health organizations until the sudden emergence of ACT UP in New York’s Greenwich Village. ACT UP was an activist group mostly made up of HIV-positive participants who refused to die without putting up a fight. Emboldened by the power of rebellion, they took on challenges that public officials had pushed aside and raised awareness about AIDS through a series of dramatic protests. Perhaps most remarkably, they became recognized experts in virology, biology and pharmaceutical chemistry. They would then seize the reins of federal policy from the FDA and NIH, force the AIDS conversation into the 1992 presidential election and guide the way towards the discovery of effective drugs that stopped HIV diagnosis from being an automatic death sentence. This is what allowed AIDS victims to live long lives.
How to Survive a Plague marks David France’s directorial debut. An award-winning journalist, France has covered the AIDS crisis for thirty years—first for the gay press and then for the New York Times and Newsweek, among others. The documentary culls from a huge amount of archival footage—most of it shot by the protestors themselves; there are 31 videographers credited in the film—to create, not just a historical document, but an intimate and equally visceral recreation of the period through the very personal accounts of some of ACT UP’s prominent voices. A handbook for all activists who want to bring about change, How to Survive a Plague captures both the joy and the terror of those days, and the epic day-by-day battles that finally made AIDS a surmountable problem.
How to Survive a Plague opens Friday, September 21st in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco.
What set you on your path towards journalism?
I actually started out in journalism as a response to AIDS. When it became clear that we were in the middle of an epidemic, everyone in the community that was being decimated tried to help in whatever way they could. Asking questions and trying to get information out there was the thing that I thought I could provide the community. At the time, I was a grad student studying philosophy. I started writing for the gay presses about what was happening and tried to make sense of it all. I wanted to expose the system that was doing so little to help us. Ultimately, I tracked my journalism into science—I became a science journalist.
What were your aspirations before the AIDS epidemic changed the course of your life?
Who knows what a Ph.D in philosophy would have done for me? [Laughs] I guess academia was a possibility. I had no real plans. I moved to New York from the Midwest to have fun and, as it turned out, having fun was dangerous.
How did you cope when your loved ones were succumbing to AIDS during the crisis?
There’s no real easy answer for that I guess. We simply survived or tried to survive. We tried to do what we could to help. A lot of my friends signed up with GMHC [Gay Men's Health Crisis]. Do you know about this buddy system?
I’m not familiar.
Clients of GMHC were assigned buddies who would help them get to their appointments, pick up their prescriptions when they weren’t feeling well, walk their dog if they couldn’t get up and out of the house, do grocery shopping for them, change their bed… Sometimes it became even more intimate. They were basically there to take care of you. People really went out of their way to make sure that those who were suffering from HIV had a support system. And while I didn’t participate in that personally, I took on the question of information and became an activist because I knew it was urgently needed. I was getting phone calls from patients in hospitals who had been there for 48 hours without having seen a doctor, a nurse or a tray of food. They were shuffled from room to room and simply ignored. The hospital system was terrible back then. I would call people up to see what was happening and try to get the system to respond by revealing this sort of neglect. I knew it would be embarrassing for a hospital if I reported about their lack of compassion for patients who were dying without care. It has been described as a war and it really was like that. You could walk by St. Vincent’s Hospital—I just rode by bike past there, and it’s now covered in scaffolding and plywood—and just see teems of people waiting for a bed, and it was likely they wouldn’t get one. The hospitals were overwhelmed. People were dying in the hallways of hospitals.
That must have been a great source of anger during the height of the epidemic.
That was the principle crime of it all. It was an emergency, but it wasn’t declared an emergency. [Ed] Koch, the mayor at the time, didn’t do what was needed to be done in order to expand medical institutions in the city so that people could at least be “comfortable” while they were dying. There was very little we could do for people at that stage, but to not even let them lie down—that’s horrific.
A lot of people didn’t know that this was happening at the time. Who do we blame for that?
The blame certainly goes to the press. The New York Times had an overtly hostile relationship with the gay community. They had no gay people on staff—none of the papers did. I got a job working at the New York Post in 1984, but when they discovered I was gay, they fired me. I was gay and that was the charge… And guilty as charged. That’s what it was like back then. The New York Times didn’t even print the word “gay” until the late ’80s and early ’90s. They just marched in a straight line and ignored the problems that, to them, didn’t merit official attention. Although local and national news began airing special reports on AIDS in the late ’80s, the message was all wrong. They focused on how all of these people were dying instead of pointing out how the healthcare system was broken. The healthcare system was strangled by the Reagan administration when they pulled money out of social services. There was this movement to defund any sort of public health response at a time when we could have done something to contain the AIDS epidemic.
At what point did you realize that there was enough footage to make a potent documentary?
I had a theory a number of years ago that I could probably dig through footage and amass enough of it to tell individual stories that would carry the weight of an enormously epic period in our history. It took me around three years to test this hypothesis. It’s a coincidence of history that HIV and the prosumer video market came about at the same time. HIV was first reported in ’81 and the first camcorder was introduced in ’82. By the time AIDS activism became empowered in ’87—this is when How to Survive a Plague begins—people dedicated themselves to covering the crisis as I had been doing. The camera was this exciting new tool that was suddenly affordable and you saw it everywhere. They were deeply embedded in AIDS activism. How to Survive a Plague is an intimate story about a number of people whose lives and actions are representative of a larger community.
How did you choose the primary subjects of this documentary?
As I started going through thousands of hours of ample footage, I wondered what would make for an emblematic story to tell about AIDS empowerment. As a science reporter, I knew that no matter what eventually led to the discovery of effective treatments, it was ultimately about saving lives. The advent of Crixivan, which came out in ’96, really changed the epidemic permanently because it stopped HIV from remaining a plague. We suddenly had a medical response to this massive problem at hand. I took Crixivan, went backwards, and told the story from there. There were some individuals that I wanted to include in the documentary, but there just wasn’t enough footage of them in the archives. And a lot of people didn’t live long enough to tell the stories themselves.
When it comes to the subjects that ultimately came onboard to make this film with you, did you see much hesitation on their part?
It was more than hesitation. It comes as no surprise to me that no one knows what happened during this time period. After ’96, a lot of us stopped talking about what had happened. There’s a parallel between AIDS survivors and those who survived the Holocaust. Holocaust survivors, like us, stopped telling their stories at a certain point. Maybe it was to maintain a sense of self-preservation or it was their complete aversion to going back and remembering what it felt like then. It was certainly a lot to ask people to revisit their past with How to Survive a Plague. Some refused… Many refused. For one person in particular, Garance Franke-Ruta, this whole project angered her. She would ask, “Why would I want to do this? Why would I want to go back and remember that?” Somewhat strangely, she couldn’t remember it herself. She had no real memory of those years, these formative years of her life where she played a central role in a historic movement.
She blocked out the painful memories.
She did. I would ask her, “Why do you think you don’t have that information? Where do you think it went?” That’s when she shared her emotional journey and the real tactile parts of her memories came back to her. It was a traumatic experience. I didn’t have a single person sitting in the chair in front of me who didn’t cry while recalling the past, making their stories available to others. There was real heroics that we witnessed just from the people as they were trying to remember the past themselves.
What have your subjects’ responses been like after seeing a final cut of the documentary?
I think they find it healing in a way. I think they started to process what had happened in a way that they hadn’t before. There’s something about the act of rewinding that allows you, finally, to begin to make sense of what happened. I think that’s what this whole documentary is about. I think it’s the first effort to really look back and ask, “What did AIDS mean and what did it mean to us as individuals? What did it mean to us as a society and as a country? What did it leave us with and what did we leave it with? What was the legacy of that whole interaction between patients, advocates, activists and the virus? And how did it transform America?”
I wonder how activism has changed since the ’80s. What are your thoughts on something like Occupy Wall Street? Are you able to pinpoint any similarities and/or flaws?
As a model for activism, they had invented a new model to combat AIDS to cope with the issues they were facing. The AIDS movement started out a lot like Occupy Wall Street did, which is to just go into the streets and make trouble in order to show the world their anguish. And, just like Occupy, they were able to change the dialogue where suddenly we saw people on the news who were trying to live and not merely dying. But then they came to the realization that it wasn’t enough to yell at a test tube because that won’t produce treatment. Instead of demanding that the system do something, they began to try and figure out exactly what they wanted the system to do. Not to do something, but to do a very specific thing. They were able to accomplish that goal through a brilliant campaign of self-education and self-empowerment, to the point where they understood enough about the science to know which pills they wanted and why, what aspects of this syndrome of AIDS they wanted addressed and which order. They became experts in the functioning of the NIH [National Institute of Health] to determine what was wrong with the system and why it wasn’t able to produce the things that were being demanded. Their expertise transformed the NIH forever—the way drugs are identified, studied, regulated and marketed. Every drug released today is released on the patterns that were created by these folks, none of whom had any scientific training other than what they taught themselves. Occupy, if it’s going to make a lasting impact—any protest movement for that matter—can learn from this. If you don’t see the kind of leadership or direction that makes sense to you, you need to help find the one that does. We’re seeing it in Russia now. We’re actually seeing the frame-by-frame replication of ACT UP’s work now in the pro-democracy movement in Russia. Pussy Riot is a direct parallel to what ACT UP was doing and we see it in the film when they go into the cathedral to protest. It’s the same action. It’s the same activity with the same goals. The goal, ultimately, is to win over the hearts and minds of more and more people to the point where your mass movement produces the kind of answers that you’re looking for.
Was How to Survive a Plague a one-off project for you or do you think you’re going to continue working in film?
I had fun so I’ll try it again.
Was this a very steep learning curve?
It was totally terrible. [Laughs] There was way too much to learn. But it was a fun project. I think it was the ideal way to tell this story.