By Larkin Callaghan
The development of an award-winning film about AIDS activism and what we can learn from it
How to Survive a Plague, an Academy-Award nominated documentary released in the fall of 2012, chronicles the start of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), an AIDS activist organization started by newly diagnosed HIV-positive individuals and their advocates in New York City in 1987. The film details how ACT UP grew from a small, local, grassroots initiative aimed at forcing the public to acknowledge the epidemic and its devastating impact, to an organization with thousands of members that transformed AIDS drug policy. Through political action like protests, public funeral ceremonies, and storming the buildings of the National Institutes of Health, ACT UP initiated ‘treatment activism,’ accelerating the development and distribution of AIDS treatment drugs and changing the pharmaceutical industry’s closed door research and development process to one that incorporated the insight and research of activists themselves. By including footage from ACT UP activists and interviewing organizers who became lifelong advocates in the fight against AIDS, writer and director David France crafts a compelling storyline underscoring how the movement opened the eyes of the public to the struggles of those with HIV/AIDS and how ACT UP’s unrelenting demands for government acknowledgement and action changed the landscape and future of those diagnosed with the virus from a death sentence to a manageable, chronic disease. Mr. France discusses the development and evolution of the film and helps articulate what viewers can take from it.
Editor’s Note: See if How to Survive a Plague wins an Oscar during the 85th Annual Academy Awards on February 24th, 2013.
You wrote extensively about HIV and AIDS for publications like New York magazine, and other writings of yours have inspired films. What was it that compelled you to take on the task of writing and then directing a film about the history of AIDS activism as opposed to staying in the writer’s chair?
I wanted to go back and look again at those years before 1996, and revisit them in order to try to make some sort of sense about what happened then. To mine those years for the lessons; the legacy; for a deeper understanding about what it meant that we’d all been through such a dark period of plague at a time when so few people were paying attention to it. That was my challenge.
The first thing I did was return to some of the videotape that I knew existed because as anybody who was doing reporting on the ground back then knew, cameras were everywhere—people with AIDS and their advocates, activists and artists, family members, and independent news gatherers were all shooting. That was all made possible with the arrival in 1982 with the revolution of the prosumer video cameras. They were suddenly available, and suddenly cheap, and they were taken up by this community in a remarkable way.
So I went to look at some of the tapes; there is a collection at the New York Library of some of the video work produced by ACT UP itself. And then I thought, you really can’t tell the story without the cameras, because the cameras played such an integral part. In fact, the camera itself was kind of a character in those years. And I thought, I’m actually looking at the project—the project is in trying to tell the story and make sense of it by going back and actually re-purposing those images for future generations.
To read more of David France's interview with Larkin Callaghan of the 2x2 Project, click here.