Peter Staley, one of the AIDS activists featured in "How to Survive a Plague."
William Lucas Walker Peter Staley, one of the AIDS activists featured in "How to Survive a Plague."

David France didn't set out to make a film about the AIDS crisis.  He didn't even set out to be a filmmaker.  On the afternoon before the Directors Guild of America Awards—for which he was nominated for his first documentary, "How to Survive a Plague"—France told me that the project (also nominated for the documentary feature Oscar) grew out of his feeling that a crucial chapter of the history of AIDS in America had been lost.  That story, he knew from personal experience, was one of activism and empowerment, one that had changed the United States forever.  France wanted to bring it back. 

"A note in a bottle"

An author and contributing editor for New York Magazine, France covered the science of AIDS as a young reporter living in New York City during the 80s and 90s.  As the years went on and he wrote about the advances that had taken place in HIV/AIDS research, France told me that he found the generation who had not grown up during the AIDS crisis lacked a knowledge of the early days of the epidemic.  The entire history of "citizen science," as he puts it—the story of how people living with AIDS educated themselves, spoke truth to power and secured the drugs that would save their lives—had been largely lost.

So France went back to look through the footage that had been shot during the formation of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a group of activists protesting what they perceived as a lack of competent, coordinated political action to fight AIDS.  On March 24, 1987, ACT UP staged its first demonstration at Wall Street and Broadway in Lower Manhattan, criticizing a lack of access for experimental AIDS drugs and calling for a national policy to fight the disease.  Seventeen ACT UP members were arrested for civil disobedience during the demonstration, shown in the first 10 minutes of "How to Survive a Plague."

At the time of ACT UP's formation, AIDS was ravaging New York's gay male population.  Unchecked by any medical treatment, the disease brought with a de facto death sentence.  France was the first reporter to cover the fledging organization, following its formation and growth into a powerhouse of activism. He knew the story from his own perspective, but as he reflected on it, he set out to understand it through the lens (both literal and metaphorical) of the activists themselves. 

"In any frame, 50-60 percent of the people in it might not have survived."

Through the process of conducting this research, France realized that the only way he could tell ACT UP's story was as a documentary: the footage itself communicated the time in a way that no journalistic retelling could.  For three years, France pored over the work of 33 different videographers who had been working at the time—some of them journalists, some of them artists, and many of them activists. He combed through their footage, searching for shots of other videographers at work with their cameras in order to identify those people and attempt to contact them.  

The task seemed daunting at first: "In any frame," France told me, "50-60 percent of the people in it might not have survived."  But, remarkably, he succeeded to find some survivor and a library of footage for every single videographer but one, a man named Costa Hoppas whose striking, cinematic work is featured early on in the film and whom France calls "a human steady-cam."

"They knew no one else was paying attention," France told me, "and they knew that each one of them was likely to perish.  What they were creating were records—of what happened, of their lives.  It's like a note in a bottle.  It was so that years later, we would know that people didn't quietly die.  They fought like hell." 

Two very different activists

"How to Survive a Plague" would be a remarkable enough film if it simply presented a deep, comprehensive look at the footage of ACT UP's activism in the 80s and 90s.  But it isthe way that France frames his narrative around two of the activists in particular which makes the film richer, more nuanced and ultimately both haunting and uplifting.