Every year Oscar’s documentary category seems to provide historical lessons for generations to learn from now and in the future. This year, “5 Broken Cameras” helps shine the light on non-violent resistance in the West Bank; “The Gatekeepers” reveals that many of Israel’s greatest hawks are now doves; “The Invisible War” pulls the curtain on clandestine operations funded by the American government; and one of rock n’roll’s forgotten heroes is rediscovered in “Searching for Sugar Man.” One of the most important nominees, however, tells the tale of an incredible grassroots movement that began in New York City to fight the battle against AIDS when it appeared no one else was, “How to Survive a Plague.” Noted author and journalist David France used amazing and rate video of this organization — better known as ACT UP — the centerpiece of his debut documentary. France took some time last week to chat about his cinematic journey, the reaction to the death of Ed Koch and why “Plague” is already a winner before he hits the Academy Awards red carpet.
Q: Congratulations on the nomination. What was your reaction that morning when you heard the news?
It was funny. It was like a very delayed reaction. And it took me several days before I truly reacted to it – just to know what it really meant. And it wasn”t actually until I was watching some news program about Lance Armstrong that I realized that nobody can take this away from you.
Q: No, they cannot.
Unlike your trophies in cycling if they catch you doing something, this one is permanent. I will always have this nomination. That was thrilling.
Q: How many years have you worked on this project?
Well, [that’s a tough] question because the journey for me has been about 30 years. You know, I”m a print journalist.
And I started in journalism as an AIDS journalist covering the epidemic, back even before they called it AIDS. So, that makes me kind of the longest living AIDS journalist around. And, you know, the story that takes place from 1987 to 1996. I was the first person to report about ACT UP. And so I saw some of these things as they were happening. I”m actually in the footage in the background with my notepads interviewing people and looking very much younger than I am today. But it wasn”t until a couple of years ago that I thought to look back at that time and see if there”s part of that story that we had forgotten to immortalize in some way. And it just became plain to me from early on that whole story of AIDS activism, and the role of AIDS activists, and the triumphs of the AIDS activists had somehow fallen out of consciousness and we had failed, and I include myself in this, to keep those stories alive and to keep them in people”s understanding of history of our recent history. So that”s why I went back there – began to go back on this process to try to tell this story. And I went to tell it as a documentary because it really is the first movement [that filmed} itself in this kind of 360 degree away. That”s because the whole video revolution was just at its dawn. We”ve seen movements since then do all this kind of self-documenting and this massive history witnessing campaigns but AIDS activists were really the very first ones to do it. So, that”s why I thought I should go and kind of embrace the presence of all those cameras and to tell it through the witnessing that had already taken place.
Q: Well how did the documentary even come about? And at what point did you realize there was this archive of mostly unseen footage to use for it?
Well, I mean I knew the footage was there because I knew the cameras were there. There”s certain kind of features of AIDS activism that kind of standout. One is the fact that there was so many cameras taking such good care of gathering these witness accounts. [It’s] footage we”ve then gathered into an archive in the New York public library. That”s actually the first place that I”d turned to see what was available there. How deep was an archive? How rich was it? And it”s a really amazing archive but it did not allow for the kind of storytelling that I wanted, which was a kind of a, dare I say, documentary based on this kind of vintage footage. So, I began to research who else was shooting back then. And to see if I could gather a list of them, bring in their footage, and in their footage you could see other people with cameras on their shoulders. These are enormous cameras back then. I would try to locate where that person is. Try to see if that person had lived or died because so many people died so quickly back then. And then pull in those libraries and begin that process all over again. Ultimately, I brought in almost 800 hours of footage from 33 different sources. And that is what allowed me to try to tell this real tiny story in the middle of this epic period. The story of four or five people as they were struggling to survive the epidemic themselves, what they did to make that possible.
Q: I apologize as I haven”t seen the doc for a couple months, but the gentlemen sitting around the living room talking about where they are in the crisis personally — was that the sort of footage that became invaluable find to you?
Oh, yeah. What was clear is that any time there was a demonstration I had coverage. I could watch people walking into the room from four or five different angle sometimes. I could watch people be arrested from multiple cameras. But it’s what was going on really behind closed doors, that was harder to find. It was not impossible to find ’cause even among that inner circle and the people whose stories are the backbone to ‘How to Survive a Plague,’ one of them was a video artist who had studied early video, had art degrees and had his camera with him at all times. So, you really see in those scenes where our people are sitting in their living rooms talking about their fears and their disappointments and their longings. They”re so comfortable with the camera that it”s though it”s not even there. These cameras became fly”s on the wall. And it allowed us to this really remarkably intimate view on what turned out to be massive global movement.
Q: A number of the key figures that you sort of are referencing in the stories over this period were still alive when you were shooting it. Was there any one that didn’t want to meet and talk to you that you were sort of disappointed with?
Absolutely. First of all, there was kind of resistance across the board from the subjects as well as from the cinematographers. And the resistance was partly about the fact that I was an outsider. I was there on the margins of what they were doing as a journalist. I was not one of them. [There was also] a larger resistance to go back and reconsider that time at all. Knowing it was so, such a dark and difficult time that people really were reluctant to open up their storage unit they put those memories in. Probably the hardest for me to negotiate was with the mother of Ray Navarro. Do you remember Ray in the film?
Q: Not offhand.
He played Jesus Christ.
Q: Oh, O.K. Right.
And he was a performance artist. And he was creating his own kind of artistic commentary on his AIDS activism and on AIDS and the larger culture; a really brilliant artist. And of course he dies. His mother became the caretaker of his work. I knew others have gone to her, friends of his had gone to her asked to study that work and she had turned ’em down because she didn’t, you know, she cherished it and protected it and guarded it as though it were, you know, somehow it held his spirit. And in a way, it does hold his spirit, as you can see from the footage that we used. [I reached out to her, but] I expected her to give me the same of response. I think it may have just been the timing was right.
[The video recordings were] not intended to last all these years. This footage was, the earliest, earliest iterations of video technology from 30 years ago. So, we did this kind of quality digitizing of the footage and was able to save it for her and for future generations, and also to gain her trust to allow us to tell a story about her son”s brilliance but also about his illness, and ultimately, his death. And that was an enormous achievement on her part I think for her to come to that place.
Q: It’s been a long year for you since the film debuted at Sundance to the release to now the Oscar nominations. Is there any moment in particular that sands out the most?
Y’know, the Oscar nomination did a really interesting thing. It lowered the age of our audience. And I think maybe in combination with the work that we were doing, through our outreach engagement, we were trying to bring this story to college students. The nomination really effectively did that. So, already we’re winners in away that it”s opened up an audience for us that is coming to the film now not thinking that they know what it is. Not thinking that they know the history of AIDS [but] that there’s something in this history they haven”t been told before and it”s worth the 110 minutes. In fact, is kind of a tremendous journey.
Q: I have a number of significantly younger friends and I sort of feel like they need to watch it because they don”t get it. They obviously don”t know what it was like to live during that era of fear.
Q: And I think in that respect it”s hugely powerful, and so congratulations on that.
Thank you. I think it also gives people heroes.
It’s like ordinary people who are heroes and we don’t have any gay heroes. We have very few. These guys are in they”re 20s transforming healthcare. Changing millions of lives. They saved so far eight million lives. Crazy the impact of what they”ve done.
Q: You know, I have to – that actually reminded me something speaking of heroes – one of the big villains, and that”s my word not yours, in the doc is Ed Koch. And I”m curious what you thought of the reaction to his passing and what your feelings were on that.
Well, you know, and this I think might even be another area that is not from the documentary but when he died the New York Times ran, I don”t know 15,000 word obituary. Probably something they had sitting around inn the queue for, I don”t know, years. And it didn”t mention AIDS, except in a side, in a fraction of a sentence. That was one of his detractor’s points, his handling of AIDS as being a less than stellar part of his tenure. But almost immediately after the piece came out, the uproar from readers of that obituary was so great that the Times had to circle back and correct it. And within an hour they issued a correction to the obituary. And I can”t think of a time that that”s ever happened before that the correction was explicitly and solely to put the appraisal of his handling of AIDS in the central part of his biography. And as I”ve been saying about Ed Koch, his failure in AIDS should be, and is, the defining cornerstone of this public life. Nothing else played as big as role historically as that. And I think if it weren”t for ‘How to Survive a Plague’ and the kind of consciousness that it”s helped create and recall that the New York Times would not have gone back and he made those corrections.
Q: But you don’t blame Reagan more? Or even George HW Bush? You don”t think that they were as…?
No. I hold them up to a different standard because what they could”ve done, and didn”t do, was contain an epidemic. Koch was in no position to handle containment. When the federal government first was alerted to the disease, there were just 41 cases. I mean 41 cases, and they did nothing that week, or that month, or that year, or that decade. And today there are over 35 million dead from the disease, including almost two million Americans, including almost 100,000 New Yorkers and that didn”t have to be. And on a federal level, I think you can hold people who don”t act culpable in those deaths. We didn”t have to have this epidemic.
We didn”t have to do this.
Q: I feel as though that every couple years they do these polls about the presidents and where they rank among each other in history. And I just feel, as time has gone by, especially with Reagan, his failure to react has been sort of swept under the carpet more and more. I guess my hope is that it sort of swings around and, I don”t know if this documentary will help, but in the future people sort of look back and realize what else did and didn’t happen. So, maybe there’s a sequel for you there?
Maybe there is.
Q: Maybe there is. Thank you so much for taking the time and congratulations and I hope you have a fantastic time at the Oscars.
Thank you. Every piece of information [I can get] out about this film I think is a part of a campaign to get to keep the issue of AIDS alive. And the incredible thing about it, if we win is to have that incredible platform to remind people of what they need to be reminded of
Q: Absolutely. And the great thing is you will get that platform, you know, in many ways…
No matter what.
“How to Survive a Plague” is still playing in limited release across the country.