In first-time director David France’s engrossing, heartbreaking new documentary How to Survive a Plague, the dawn of the AIDS epidemic is revisited through film footage and interviews that were shot by 31 videographers while actual events were unfolding. France, a former journalist, witnessed first-hand the organizing meetings, protests and political rallies, and sometime schisms that coursed through the AIDS movement.
To travel back to such a dark and fearful time in GLBT – and American – history would seem a daunting and downbeat venture, yet France has masterfully honed some 700 hours of footage down into a tight work of art that is at times both serious and celebratory, introducing us to the pioneering warriors, particularly the members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), who fought in blood, sweat, and tears against the power establishment that wasn’t doing anything to help quell the rising epidemic.
The resulting experience is an essential one that, by film’s end, envelops the viewer in emotions that must be confronted if our society – with all the social and medical strides that have been achieved – will continue to effect greater miracles.
David Atlanta chatted with David France about his film and got his perspective on where we stand as a community now in the war against HIV and AIDS.
One of the things that struck me about the film was the almost unabashed resistance by people in positions of power – whether that was politicians, lawmakers, drug companies, etcetera – who could do something but who resisted helping find a cure. Was it literally just fear or a resistance to gay people?
It’s really hard to remember how really hated gay people were back then. The gay movement had not made great advances in the year since 1969 to 1981 when HIV struck. Some infrastructure had been in place for the community, but gay people still had no role in civic life by the time this disease struck. There were no openly gay people working in Washington. There were literally no openly gay people working at newspapers. I was a reporter starting back then, and there were literally no openly gay reporters. It’s hard to imagine today. So in a way, AIDS became a way to express that ignorance and real detestation.
So it became an open season on discrimination and ignorance?
Absolutely. And then look who comes next – IV drug users. Then people of color communities. They were not much better off than the gay community was in relation to official public policy, so it was a dark time for civil rights and civil engagements for the communities that were struck by the epidemic. And the very first thing AIDS activists had to do was establish their humanity in the eyes of institutional science and government funding.
They really had to convey that “we are people too.”
We are humans, and as humans we deserve some compassion, which was also being withheld. The things that were free were being withheld from the community, much less the things that were expensive. How do we rearrange the federal research machinery to combat a viral plague?
For me, the most dramatic and powerful imagery in the film is the footage of the protest organizing meetings and the protests themselves. They’re very visceral, giving the viewer a “you are there” experience. It makes one feel the urgency, the passion, and the anger that was going on. Since you were there to report on many of those events, how deeply ingrained in your heart have they remained, particularly when you were compiling the footage for the film?
I was there in those rooms at those demonstrations, and I think I had pushed my memories of them away, locked my memories of them away. When I went back to the footage, it was a very painful experience, but also invigorating that the community was so unified and focused in this movement and the ultimate goal of getting medications for this disease. I had also forgotten how clever they were, both in their ability to master the science but also in the colorful aspects of their protestations.
Larry Kramer’s “plague” outburst scene was almost heart-stopping. The sheer anger he displayed in shaming his fellow activists for the fractured structure that their protest efforts had become caused me to wonder why there might have been such divisiveness. Especially since, in so much footage, there seemed to be such a unified passion for the cause of AIDS treatments. How much of this seeming disorganized nature did you witness during your coverage?
You know what I was more surprised by was how long they did hold it together. If you look at previous grassroots movements in this country, very few of them had that kind of multi-year cohesion that AIDS activism had. The protest version of it, ACT UP, had seven or eight solid years in unison without a single member being paid to keep moving the science forward. And how they did that is a story for the ages, I think. But what happened when they hit the wall was, I think, just some exhaustion and there was some trauma just from having lived in the plague years in New York, and frustration that as much energy as they had put in to that point they had not made the kind of progress they were hoping for. So, it made sense, it was a logical human reaction to that kind of despair and loss.
For all of the justified seriousness and somber tone of the movement that we witness in the film, there were moments of levity and humor… whether in some of the laughter among the activists, or (in one of my favorite moments) cloaking Senator Jesse Helms’ home in a giant condom. How important was humor in those days? Was it hard to come by, with all the frustration, struggle, and death that was surrounding the movement?
One of the things somebody said to me in the course of my reporting to bring this story together is that there was a lot of fun people were having in the middle of all the death and dying. It was a kind of declaration of a will to live, and part of the fierce connection to life that a lot of those activists were living in was their ability to keep a sense of humor even if it was a sense of humor around death and dying. There were some morbid edges to it. Ideas like ridicule – they used ridicule politically, in a way, to help bring the general public’s way of thinking around to their own. And that’s what that Helms action was about. It was about ridiculing a buffoon who ordinary Americans needed permission to think of as a buffoon. [The condom protest] gave them that and helped undermine his power in the Senate.
There seems to be a sense of invincibility to HIV and AIDS now because of these successful drugs. The proliferation of bareback gay porn videos and continued unprotected sex come immediately to mind. Coming from your personal experience with losing your lover to AIDS complications and having been a journalist covering the front lines of the early days of the epidemic, having seen and heard all that you have, what would you say to these men who still engage in unprotected sex? A sense of “it won’t happen to me” or thinking they can get away with it.
Or actually not caring whether or not they do. You talk to young people now who are not practicing safe sex, and they talk about this idea that it’s just a pill a day, which unfortunately it’s not. It’s a complicated course of medications, and we still don’t know what it’s going to be like for somebody two decades out, three decades out on those pills. Nobody’s lived that long on those pills yet. If you’re 20 years old and you contract HIV, they’re projecting you’ve got 50 years that you can live on those pills. You can live until 70, but what does that mean and what kind of life is that, what is your health going to be like? We still don’t know those things.
But you know, I don’t reserve my blame for the porn industry and the people who are not thinking about HIV transmission or not thinking about protecting themselves. I think the organized community, the gay community, has not done enough to keep the discussion going. They haven’t done anything. It’s the AIDS organizations that it’s been left to. There’s an article in the Harvard Lesbian and Gay Review, or whatever it’s called now, in the newest issue – someone saying this is a gay epidemic. We’ve been denying it for many years. But over half of new cases remain men who have sex with men. Mostly young, but some in their fifties and sixties. If we don’t claim that, then we’re not going to do anything about finding a way to address it. We’re denying what’s so apparent: gay men are at serious risk of contrasting HIV. We’ve got 50 or 55 thousand new cases of HIV in the United States every year. That’s unchanged in the last 17 years, but who’s addressing that and HIV prevention. But if those cases are in our community, we should be addressing that and we’re not.
With all the successful drugs available now that are greatly extending lives, why is it still important to remember the early days of the AIDS epidemic that you document so beautifully in your film?
AIDS activism is the last great American social justice movement. It follows feminism, it follows the anti-war movement, it follows the civil rights movement, and so far it has not been inducted into the canon of those great American grassroots movements, and it belongs. It belongs as the legacy that all Americans are inheriting, and all of the ways that science and medicine have changed as a result of that deserve to be acknowledged. It’s our history, our American history.
Also, it’s a story of heroes, and I think certainly the gay community has a lack of heroes. I think the community at large is desperate for examples of individuals who, with no special powers, are able to confront this problem and bring it to its knees. That’s a reason to go back to this story – to see what can be done with perseverance and good organization. I think of this as an American story that way.