Talking to Documentarian David France About Fighting AIDS in the Early Days

09/12/2012 9:00 AM |

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Did you find making the film emotionally difficult?
It was, for me. More than for my editors, because I lived through it. As a journalist, I was the first person to write about ACT UP, in the Village Voice. I attended their meetings. I knew some of the people on a personal level, but most of them were just sources. A lot of the difficult part was allowing me to feel a hard part of my life on a visceral level. In 1992, I lost my lover to AIDS. I tried to figure out ways to honor him.

Did you ever feel tempted to make a more overtly personal film?
No. Before doing this, I never thought of myself as a documentarian. It’s not my personal story. I’m not a hero here. I just stood on the sidelines, hoping these people would succeed. I had invested a lot of hope in them. Because my lover was sick, I’d hoped they’d do something quicker rather than later and make a significant breakthrough.

Why do you think the anger of the ACT UP days is largely missing from contemporary gay or health care activism?
I don’t know if it’s anger that’s missing. Maybe it’s urgency. That was a time when every minute counted. The prognosis for survival after diagnosis was 18 months. That’s all you could expect. Once that changed, urgency evaporated. That makes sense. Somehow, we’ve allowed the Republicans to demonize the word “care” as if it’s an awful thing. No one’s come to the defense of the idea that ACT UP promulgated that health care is a human right. That’s gotten lost. I’d love to see it come back, but no one’s doing that kind of activism. The model ACT UP used for interfacing with science has been replicated in breast cancer activism, but the grass roots activism has been forgotten.

On the other hand, do you think in a post-9/11 world, it would be possible to do the same kind of activism? The Pussy Riot action made me think of the ACT UP protest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, although obviously it took place in a different country.
They’re absolutely parallel. I don’t know if activists today would be able to get away with a protest like that in this country. I was just in Washington for the International AIDS Conference, and some of the protest organizations went to the White House to demand more money for cure research. Approaching the gate to the White House in exactly the way they had in 1992, they saw there were snipers around. They were not going to be able to do anything, and they were instantly arrested. Then they were informed that if they threw anything over the fence, it was a felony, not just a misdemeanor or violation. What could they get away with? The times are really different. But they don’t have a huge grass roots movement behind them. I’m curious whether Pussy Riot will lead to a huge pro-democracy movement in Russia.

Have all the people you interviewed seen the film?
All but two. I think they were nervous at first. One of the reasons why the story of AIDS activism hadn’t been told before is that it’s defended fiercely from various angles. ACT UP really was so much more than the story I tell in the film. Needle exchange emerged through it. Housing Works came from it. Its influence was really broad, in policy and so many other social issues. The political risk in telling one small story was large. I was relieved and gratified that the people whose story I told felt that I did it justice.