How to Survive a Plague, a documentary directed by David France

David France’s How to Survive a Plague

This Friday, September 21, 2012, How to Survive a Plague will be released to theaters, and along with it, a flood of painful and enraging memories of the AIDS crisis. But there was a galvanized crew of activists, known as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), that fought back, playing a vital part in ultimately controlling the virus.

Those interested in the subject — and, yes, it’s not just a piece of history as, globally, AIDS continues to spread — will know that, earlier this year, Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, telling a similar story, came out. I asked director David France about that other film, comparisons to the Occupy Wall Street movement and about one of the most jaw-dropping moments ever caught on camera.

Doc Soup Man: You’ve already told me that you and Hubbard are old friends and didn’t conflict even though you have films that seem so similar; tell me how your approaches to the topic are different, and why there wasn’t overlapping of sources and footage.

David France, director How to Survive a Plague: From the beginning, I wanted to tell the story of the epic, 10-year battle to bring HIV to its knees. This is a story that involves researchers, government officials and — a first in history — patients and their advocates. Jim’s dedication is to the history of an organization, which he has spent the better part of the last quarter century archiving. Both stories are essential and need to be preserved, so we agreed to work on them simultaneously. He is my associate producer and I am one of his supporters. In our parallel productions, we agreed to not discuss specifics of footage and narrative until our films were complete, and at that time we saw that our interests and biases and curiosities about this time had indeed taken our films in different and complementary directions.

Doc Soup Man: With Occupy Wall Street receding into memory (of course, OWS took a stab at keeping the torch alive with some activity yesterday, marking its one-year anniversary), can you talk a little bit about why ACT UP kicked ass for so long without giving up? What could OWS learn from ACT UP?

David France: It’s important to remember that what brought ACT UP together was a fierce will to live. They had everything to lose, and only one thing to gain: survival. Compared to the more amorphous aims of Occupy Wall Street, that is a pretty clear goal, even if the path there seemed impossible. It allowed ACT UP to push past failures and setbacks, to regroup and re-strategize. They had no choice. They had a war to fight, not a battle. To win, they had to defeat a virus, so if one door closed on them they sought out another. It may be premature to talk about Occupy Wall Street in the past tense, but for those of us who rooted for them, they seemed never to have articulated an end game. Without that, I suspect their setbacks took on a greater sense of failure.

Doc Soup Man: It shakes me to the core when I think of the moment in your film when ACT UP founder Larry Kramer calls AIDS a “plague.” I’m curious about your reaction to that moment.

David France: Kramer has played a pivotal role in AIDS history, and in this scene his powers are center stage. He has an ability to marshal a few explosive words that can immediately concentrate the world’s attention on the mess right there in front of us, the mess we couldn’t see. As a reporter covering these events, I saw him accomplish this over and over, beginning in the first few months of the plague. He literally shouted ACT UP into being in 1987 when he gave a chilling speech warning the community of the apocalypse at their door — spontaneously, the audience galvanized into a movement before his eyes.

And he did it again in the scene you mention, at a hideous junction in the group’s dynamics where infighting threatened to derail the movement. Over the din of squabbling and wild allegations, he cries out: “Plague! We’re in the middle of a f—– plague, and you behave like this!?”

I didn’t know about this moment until finding it in the archival footage. With elegance and passion, he goes on to quiet the room, thaw the tensions, and turn a gathering of individuals back into an army. For me, finding this tape was a stunning discovery. I had already named the film How to Survive a Plague, but perhaps I had somehow already been influenced by Kramer, without knowing it — he’s that powerful a figure.

How to Survive a Plague opens in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco Friday, September 21, 2012. Visit for show times and upcoming screenings.

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Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen