Infuriating and moving, David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague (Sep 21) depicts the heroic efforts of ACT UP in the late 80s and early 90s as the group fought against bureaucratic apathy and right-wing homophobia to push the government and health care industry to take HIV and AIDS seriously. France draws largely on videos shot contemporaneously, as well as newly shot interviews with surviving ACT UP members. The film calls to mind Jean Cocteau’s suggestion that cinema can be a form of “death at work,” as many of its subjects visibly sicken and die in front of their own cameras. Yet at heart, Plague is an optimistic tribute to the power of street-level activism.
There have been a number of recent films about AIDS and AIDS activism. Were you worried about covering the same ground or competing with them?
I didn’t know about We Were Here until I saw that it was playing at Sundance, when I was already working on my film. I went to see it to see how much shared territory there was, and there was none. In a way, that film looked back at some of the period without talking about what was accomplished and how to tell the story of the triumph of the drugs that became available in 1996. There’s also Vito, which is the story of one important person’s life and activism. It brings him into ACT UP, but not the area in which I was focusing. I don’t tell the entire story of ACT UP. It’s the story of a group of people who invented this idea of treatment activism and transformed the health care world as we know it.
You’ve been a print journalist for decades. What inspired you to move into filmmaking?
I started thinking about it in 2009. I wanted to write the story. Then I realized that even in order to write it, I’d have to go back to video. I knew that it was there and had been shot. HIV and the camcorder go hand in hand. The camcorder was introduced in 1982, just a few months after the first reports of AIDS. It was adopted very quickly as a tool by people who were doing activism. Looking at this 25-year-old footage, I changed my goal to making a documentary.
How hard was it to track down all that footage?
It wasn’t too tough. We were working on it right until we locked the picture. I kept looking for different camera angles and higher quality footage. The footage that we used is from all formats. Sometimes, it was copies of masters, and we kept looking for masters to get a better-quality image. Some of it is shot on VHS.
How long did the editing on your film take?
Fourteen months. We had two cutting rooms. So in terms of hours, that’s 28 months. We went through 700 hours of archival footage to pare it down to two hours. My first cut was 13 hours. It took us two days to watch. I loved it, but I couldn’t release it. I had to remove a lot of significant detail, entire stories of people’s lives in order to make a digestible feature.