In Interview: David France on How to Survive a Plague

by Maryann O'Connor on 27/03/2014

still How to Survive a Plague

How to Survive a Plague is a life-changing documentary, directed by David France, which follows NYC activists from the early 1980s onwards desperately campaigning for the HIV and AIDS crisis to be taken seriously by US politicians, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Pharmaceutical Companies and hospitals.

Through pure perseverance and sweat, blood and oceans of tears, cooperation finally yielded an effective drug combination in 1996. This Oscar-nominated documentary leaves you in no doubt that if you need something to be done, you have to cling on for dear life and not let go until it happens. I caught up with David France over Skype for a chat about his film and the ongoing battle against HIV.

Congratulations on an excellent film. I’ve watched it twice now; the first time I was crying in the cinema, the second time I was really angry. Were those two reactions the ones you were going for?

Thank you. I actually think it’s a third emotion. Maybe if you watch it again it will happen. The story thrills people: I’ve been in audiences where people leap to their feet afterwards this sense of having been on this triumphant journey, that they hadn’t expected. People expect that a movie about AIDS is going to make them sad or angry and it does, it can’t not because so many people died and there were so many ways that the death toll could have been stopped that were ignored or denied to the community of people who were suffering.

But at the same time what these few people, men and women, most of them with HIV, were able to accomplish was phenomenal. Without any medical training or political training without anything in common, besides their HIV infections, they were able to build this grassroots social justice movement that not only radicalised the way medicine is practised and science is undertaken and drugs are regulated, released but also began the forward motion of the LGBT movement in a way that didn’t exist before, and that ultimately gave us the momentum that’s brought us where we are today. It all somehow came out of the dark crucible of this massive, tragic epidemic.

Would you say that you’re as much of an activist as a journalist and filmmaker?

I am not an activist…I learned early on that I wasn’t any good at it. What I was much better at was telling the stories of what other people were doing and that’s what I’ve done in How to Survive a Plague. It’s really to repeat the story that I witnessed, you know, I’m in the footage –  I’m there in the film in the background, as a journalist with notepad, always on the margins, always pushed against the walls of those meetings, very impressed at what they were doing and also very hopeful. I hoped that they would succeed.

At the end of the film you mention the number of people who were dying because they were unable to afford the AIDS drugs, that’s not changed that much has it?

When I finished the the film two years ago there were 6 million people on the drugs, today there’s 10 million people on the drugs and I’d like to take responsibility (laughs) I’d like to say I had something to do with that but I doubt it it’s really the work of today’s activists who are fighting to lower the cost of those drugs and who are building these vast healthcare delivery networks in parts of the world that had never had such things before. And building the support networks that are allowing and encouraging people to begin taking the drugs and to stay on them every day without fail for the rest of their lives. There are 18 million HIV infections in the world and 10 million of those people are on effective medication today and that’s thanks to activism, that’s thanks to the work that is still being done.

It’s going to be a big leap to get the rest of the 18 million people on to the drugs, isn’t it?

It’s not that they are further afield within the countries where there are effective programmes it’s that they’re in countries where there are no effective programmes, bits of the world which have not yet addressed the problem. It will be no more difficult there than it was in South Africa which today is a model for treatment access globally, not just in sub-Saharan Africa. They’ve really shown the way and if they can do it, we can get it done…in all the places untouched by AIDS medication.

Do you think that the making (and reception) of films like yours and Dallas Buyers Club suggests that there’s less discrimination against people with HIV now than there was?

In world history it’s the most stigmatised disease ever. You know, Cancer used to have a stigma attached to it and that’s been eliminated…but HIV stigma still needs addressing in the West, not just parts of the world that we may think of being a decade or two behind the rest of us.

I showed the film in one of the townships in South Africa, in Khayelitsha which has the highest concentration of HIV infections in the world; it’s a dire community of shacks and shared toilets, toilets shared by hundreds, with no electricity and people came out to watch the film. A young girl, probably a teenager, raised her hand afterwards and she had a question and a statement, her statement was ‘thank you for showing us this film, until now I didn’t think anyone else ever got it’. They internalise it so much that she thought it was ‘only us here in this terrible world’. Then she asked ‘in your country, do you bury people with AIDS in the same cemetery as everybody else’? which suggested to me that they’re dumping bodies, because that stigma is so intense that even the dead are stigmatised.

You’ve been writing about HIV and AIDS for thirty years; what inspired you to make How to Survive a Plague now?

Well, I dedicated the film to my lover who died of AIDS, Doug Gould who died in ’92, so I was thinking about the anniversary of his death, thinking about those years and how hard it is sometimes to remember them and how inconceivable (those years) seemed to people who hadn’t been through them. And i felt a responsibility to try and convey that to people who weren’t there, for them to know that in this recent, recent history this tragedy was allowed to happen.

As Peter Staley (activist) says at the end of the film; ‘that brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, died so that others might live and be free’. That we dont know about that is crazy, that we don’t know what this handful of people did for the rest of humanity is crazy.

How to Survive a Plague is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 31 March

Twitter: @SurvivePlagueUK and @ByDavidFrance



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