AIDS activist Pete Staley in “How to Survive a Plague”
David France’s documentary “How to Survive a Plague” is a riveting and harrowing account of the formation, protests and achievements of the AIDS activist group ACT UP. The group emerged in 1987, six years into the AIDS epidemic, as a response to the government’s lack of response to AIDS research and the glacially slow path to finding a cure. ACT UP raised awareness about AIDS and forced it into the political conversation, prompting then presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s famous quote, “I feel your pain.”
France, a journalist, and now first time filmmaker, began covering the AIDS crisis in its earliest months, before the crisis even had a name. His first articles were published in the gay press. France wrote the first stories about ACT UP for the “Village Voice” and was actually present, covering most of the events shown in the film as a journalist. France explains, “Soon I was writing about them (ACT UP) for the daily papers, then ‘The New York Times,’ then ‘Newsweek.’ I was invested personally in their efforts as well.”
What is most impressive about “How to Survive a Plague” is that, although it has modern day interviews, the film is composed mostly of found footage, shot by non-professionals who were at meetings and protests with camcorders. France began his three year search for found footage by researching a collection of AIDS Activist Videotape at the New York Public Library. Contained in the footage were shots of people shooting with camcorders. France was able to establish the identities of these people and then contact them in the hope that they had saved their footage after so many years.
France explains that “I found tape collections scattered across the country, in basements and under beds, in storage bins and in closets. In each new tape I could spot other people with cameras, whose archives I would then work to locate – a task made more towering and traumatic by the fact that too many had themselves died of AIDS.” Ultimately France wound up with 700 hours of footage from 30 independent shooters. From this mountain of footage France, and editors T. Woody Richman, Tyler H. Walk and Jonathan Oppenheim, has created a tightly focused story on six activists over a ten year period that can only be described as epic.
“How to Survive a Plague” is an incredible historical and educational document. “How to Survive a Plague” opens on Friday, September 21 at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue.