David France credits his years of experience in print journalism for the success of his first venture into moviemaking, “How to Survive a Plague.” The gritty film, which details the courageous actions of two grassroots coalitions -- ACT UP and TAG -- to raise awareness of AIDS in the 1980s, contends for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars.
“I’d long been covering the AIDS epidemic,” says France, “so this is a story I wanted to go back to and try and make sense of, the story of the plague years in America before the effective medications came out that made surviving AIDS a possibility. I realized that a story of that time really needed to focus on the individuals whose activism helped bring us to those drugs, and helped bring a close to the plague years. That’s a story of the beginning of patient advocacy, and the creation of citizen scientists.”
France made use of years of archival footage to construct his narrative, bringing in over 800 hours of vintage video from several sources. “The camcorder revolution was really at its infancy in 1987, when AIDS activism began,” explains the filmmaker. “The activists were among the first to really take up that technology and try and find social and political and cultural uses. It was important for them to do it because the mainstream media wasn’t covering it.”
“How to Survive a Plague” won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best First Film as well as Best Documentary from the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Gotham Awards.
Our experts rank the film second with odds of 4/1 to win, behind “Searching for Sugar Man,” which has odds of 13/8.
In the video chat below, France reveals his biggest challenge was getting interviews with survivors of the plague. “Most of them were reluctant to do it. Many of us who survived those times have found ways to wall off the memories in order to make an ongoing normalness possible. It was a lot I was asking from them.”