Award-winning film documents the impact of AIDS activists on health care

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Writer and filmmaker David France’s film debut, “How to Survive a Plague,” is one of the most acclaimed films of the year. The AIDS documentary won a 2013 Independent Spirit Award nomination for best documentary and a New York Film Critics Award for best first film. It’s been short-listed for an Academy Award for best documentary.

Prior to the film, France was best known for his book “Our Fathers,” about the Catholic Church’s clerical sex abuse scandal. Combining a stunning array of period film footage with such interview subjects as Larry Kramer, Dr. Mathilde Krim, Gregg Bordowitz and many others, France has created a dazzling cinematic quilt of survival.

Gregg Shapiro: The title of the film suggests a very different approach to the AIDS crisis than “We Were Here.” Why did you decide to take the “how to” approach?

David France: The bigger goal of mine was to tell a story, to tell the other side of the story of what those plague years were like. I think that many accounts have been put together, both fictional and nonfictional, about how tragic that time was. Anybody who had gone through it knew also that it was a time of incredible urgency on the part of the community. There was a huge growth in power and knowledge and creativity. It’s a revolutionary impetus that changed the country. It changed health care in America. It changed the role of gay people in America. It left this totally transformed country behind. I wanted to tell that part of the story. I understand why people hadn’t done it before, because there was so much suffering and we needed to honor that. I didn’t want to undermine that, but I wanted to be able to say, “Look a lot of good came from AIDS along with that awful tragedy.”

The survival aspect of the title really hits home in the scene where someone says, “in the absence of adequate health care” the community became its own “clinicians, researchers, drug smugglers, pharmacists.” Before making the film, how aware were you of this level of community activity?

I was very aware of the underground stuff. The underground drug distributions I had covered. I had friends who relied on those distributions for medication. At one point when my lover died, I did what many people did, which was I carried what was left of his experimental drugs over to the People With AIDS Health Group so they could distribute them to people who were still alive. There was this active underground that the authorities were just allowing to exist. Because they existed, people had some hope and had some belief that something was being done. Ultimately as Derek Link says in the film, ultimately those drugs didn’t do any good. It was like the Laetrile of the time.

It was all trial and error.

Right. And that’s when they started doing actual drug trials. The Compound Q trials, which is what you saw in that basement, was drawn up by academics and the idea was, “We’re going to see if this works, instead of just giving it out over the counter. Let’s see if it works.” Of course, it didn’t.

People outside of the community learned many valuable lessons from the response and from ACT UP.

Absolutely! Every aspect of health activism today is based in part of the model of ACT UP.

Do you think ACT UP, TAG and other groups within the LGBT community ever got – or will ever get – the recognition they deserve for the changes they helped to effect?

Not yet. People who have watched the film have left it saying, “They deserve a Nobel Prize, their contributions were that fundamental that they really should be considered at that level.”

The late Bob Rafsky is something of a central figure, both in the film and in the fight against AIDS. Why did you choose to focus so much time on him?

Each of the characters that I focus on or follow had one thing in common: They were AIDS treatment activists. But I selected individuals based on what role they played in the organization. Bob was really like the prophet. He had the ability to contextualize the pandemic in a way that made others understand it. He was the kind of person who would go into these demonstrations, taking over offices, meeting with scientists. When everything broke down, he was the person who would pull up his pant leg and show his Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and say, “Look, this is about death and not about politics and not about money and not about anything else.” And you see him developing throughout the course of 10 years, you see the refinement of his oration. He’s like a rabbi. He was a stunning character, he really was. 

Something else that stood out for me in the doc was the use of the late Arthur Russell’s music.

Russell died of AIDS in the early ’90s. His music is really influential to a new generation of musicians, and it was through that resurgence that I first learned of his work. We made a plan to go, with his estate, into his recordings from late in his life, when he was very prolific and see what he was doing, to see the world that he was seeing. Surprisingly, it was a very bright world. I thought it would be darker as he was dying, (but) it’s full of beauty and life and power.