An Activist’s Path: A Q&A with the Oscar-nominated director of How to Survive a Plague

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind 'How to Survive a Plague' talks to TIME about the origins—and future—of his documentary

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© Rick Reinhard / Sundance Selects

Peter Staley triumphantly finishes hanging banner over the main entrance to the FDA main headquarters, Rockville, MD, Oct. 11, 1988.

The film How to Survive a Plague—a searing documentary about the coalition of activists who forced the government to confront the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s—had its premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. This Sunday, some 13 months later, filmmaker David France will learn whether his work will earn the Oscar for best documentary feature. But that’s hardly the final chapter of his movie, says France, who envisions his work as an ongoing project to educate viewers about the sometimes unpleasant history of how some dedicated individuals shaped a government’s response to a national health crisis. France tells TIME how an Oscar nomination will help his film fulfill that mission.

TIME: Why make How to Survive a Plague when you did?
David France: I lived through this period and covered it as a reporter and suffered the consequences of the epidemic like everybody in my community did. And it took me many years after 1996 to start looking back at those plague years, before the effective medication came out, to try and make sense of what it was that we’d all been through. It really takes that long to be able to see with a new pair of eyes what we all experienced so intimately and tragically. For me, that began with a series of articles that I wrote that reminded me of two things. One, that that was a period of incredible, revolutionary change. And the other, that somehow in our silence about those years it got more or less lost, that story of change and action and political mobilization.

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What about the documentary format made you want to explore the story that way, rather than as a journalist?

It was more of an opportunity than a choice. The opportunity was in the footage. I was reminded of all the cameras that were present at the time and I realized that, in fact, this was the first social-justice movement that was recording itself in real time. And that was because of the advent of the camcorder, that was really in its infancy in the early days of AIDS.

What happened to that footage between then and now?

It had mostly gathered dust. There was an initiative at the New York Public Library to gather up that archival video and preserve it—that’s really where I began my research. But in order to tell the 360-degree story that I was looking for, I had to go and find other people who were doing that recording at the time. I found footage under peoples’ beds, in peoples’ bookcases, in storage units, in boxes in the rafters of their garages. It was footage that people knew contained important views on history, but it wasn’t being stored under ideal conditions and was reaching the end of its viable life. Video is a fragile medium that was never intended to hold image for decades. So it was really a race against time. We preserved almost 800 hours of footage.


And we used that to try to find this really small story of a few people as they navigated their way through this epic period.

Was there any part of the story that was particularly difficult to tell, just in terms of finding the footage?

I found most all of the footage to be able to tell the narrative story. But I remember being in New York then, in the Village, that AIDS was apparent in everyday life. You would walk down the sidewalk and you would see gravely ill young people leaning against one another, trying to get to the hospitals. You would see people in wheelchairs who were desiccated. You saw disease everywhere. I was looking for those ordinary images of everyday plague, and I didn’t find them anyplace. I still would love to see if I could find images like that, just to show to people how devastating it was, that it wiped out neighborhoods.

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When you started the project, did you set out to focus on ACT UP or did that focus come later?

I wanted to tell the story of how we got the drugs that made the difference.

And that’s why it ends in 1996.

Right. I knew how the film was going to end. It ends in 1996 with this remarkable breakthrough of, finally, an effective medication against HIV. I knew the path to get there was an activist’s path, and I knew that these people were central. I knew who the players were going to be, from my reporting.

What do you think a movie about the 15 years of AIDS after 1996 would look like?

When ’96 came, it was a great good fortune that a drug was available. It emptied hospitals, it allowed the march of death to slow, but it also was disorienting. I think the next story would be to try to make sense of the condition and circumstance of survival. Survival itself is a new journey and we haven’t really looked at it.

Is that a project that you’re interested in doing?

It’s actually something I’m working on for a book. I’m still reporting and writing.

What was it like when you heard about the Oscar nomination?

It was thrilling. I guess probably everybody would say that, but for me the thrill was that we ran this massive outreach and education campaign around it. And all of this is an effort to give the film a life of its own and to establish it in the marketplace of ideas so that people will turn to it for this history. And an Oscar nomination gives it that much more standing and makes it more probable that it will reach wide audiences for a long time. So the thrill was seeing your baby leave home. It was the excitement of knowing that it had a life of its own and that it would outlive all of us.