'How to Survive a Plague' Director David France Looks Back: 'All I See Are Ghosts'
Oscar-Nominated Doc 'How To Survive A Plague' to Become ABC Miniseries (Exclusive)
David France fought for over a decade to make the world care about AIDS. Now, he's making sure it doesn't forget.
A journalist living in New York City's East Village when the mysterious epidemic began to slaughter the gay community in 1981, France dedicated himself to chronicling the nascent fight to find a cure for the plague. First, however, the community needed to organize and rise up to fight the homophobia of the times, coming out of the closet onto the national stage to speak out and demand recognition for their rights, both civil and medical. He covered the emergence of ACT UP, a community organization which took to the streets in marches and protests, raising the profile of the victims as the disease continued to tear through the nation.
Millions were dying, and fear was gripping the city, but it took years for President Ronald Reagan to acknowledge the disease, and it first became a real campaign issue in the 1992 election. A few years later, medical advances would begin to help stem the rushing tide of illness. In his Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, France looks back on the fight through vintage footage and interviews, highlighting the activists as never before.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed
THR: I think I wasn’t aware of the details of the fight against AIDS and the rise of gay activism as much as other civil rights movements, and this was much more recent. Do you think it gets short-changed at all, in terms of public discussion?
France: Oh, absolutely. That’s why we set out to do this project in the first place. It’s as significant a movement as the women’s health movement, the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement. It’s more fundamentally transformative than those movements, and yet it has so far not been treated with that kind of significance. And the first thing I wanted to do when I started working on the film was to put it on the shelf with those great American social justice movements and teach people how significant it was for American lives, to canonize it.
THR: I live in the East Village of Manhattan and hang out downtown, and you don’t think of where you are as historical ground, but that’s actually the case.
France: Absolutely, and especially where you are, the Village. I’m still in the same place as I was back then. I guess my lease is as old as you. I’m on 7th Street, and I just look around and see ghosts in the East Village.
THR: And it’s changed so much, the neighborhood.
France: All of those people in the film were from the East Village, and the majority of the street forces that were in ACT UP were East Village artists and bohemians, and people living self-styled lives [who] found a way to afford to be able to do it, spend all that time that it took, to be basically a full-time, unpaid political operative.