David France says Oscar nominee 'How to Survive a Plague' is already a 'winner'
Every year Oscar's documentary category seems to provide historical lessons for generations to learn from now and in the future. This year, "5 Broken Cameras" helps shine the light on non-violent resistance in the West Bank; "The Gatekeepers" reveals that many of Israel's greatest hawks are now doves; "The Invisible War" pulls the curtain on clandestine operations funded by the American government; and one of rock n'roll's forgotten heroes is rediscovered in "Searching for Sugar Man." One of the most important nominees, however, tells the tale of an incredible grassroots movement that began in New York City to fight the battle against AIDS when it appeared no one else was, "How to Survive a Plague." Noted author and journalist David France used amazing and rate video of this organization -- better known as ACT UP -- the centerpiece of his debut documentary. France took some time last week to chat about his cinematic journey, the reaction to the death of Ed Koch and why "Plague" is already a winner before he hits the Academy Awards red carpet.
Q: Congratulations on the nomination. What was your reaction that morning when you heard the news?
It was funny. It was like a very delayed reaction. And it took me several days before I truly reacted to it - just to know what it really meant. And it wasn’t actually until I was watching some news program about Lance Armstrong that I realized that nobody can take this away from you.
Q: No, they cannot.
Unlike your trophies in cycling if they catch you doing something, this one is permanent. I will always have this nomination. That was thrilling.
Q: How many years have you worked on this project?
Well, [that's a tough] question because the journey for me has been about 30 years. You know, I’m a print journalist.
And I started in journalism as an AIDS journalist covering the epidemic, back even before they called it AIDS. So, that makes me kind of the longest living AIDS journalist around. And, you know, the story that takes place from 1987 to 1996. I was the first person to report about ACT UP. And so I saw some of these things as they were happening. I’m actually in the footage in the background with my notepads interviewing people and looking very much younger than I am today. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I thought to look back at that time and see if there’s part of that story that we had forgotten to immortalize in some way. And it just became plain to me from early on that whole story of AIDS activism, and the role of AIDS activists, and the triumphs of the AIDS activists had somehow fallen out of consciousness and we had failed, and I include myself in this, to keep those stories alive and to keep them in people’s understanding of history of our recent history. So that’s why I went back there - began to go back on this process to try to tell this story. And I went to tell it as a documentary because it really is the first movement [that filmed} itself in this kind of 360 degree away. That’s because the whole video revolution was just at its dawn. We’ve seen movements since then do all this kind of self-documenting and this massive history witnessing campaigns but AIDS activists were really the very first ones to do it. So, that’s why I thought I should go and kind of embrace the presence of all those cameras and to tell it through the witnessing that had already taken place.
Q: Well how did the documentary even come about? And at what point did you realize there was this archive of mostly unseen footage to use for it?
Well, I mean I knew the footage was there because I knew the cameras were there. There’s certain kind of features of AIDS activism that kind of standout. One is the fact that there was so many cameras taking such good care of gathering these witness accounts. [It's] footage we’ve then gathered into an archive in the New York public library. That’s actually the first place that I’d turned to see what was available there. How deep was an archive? How rich was it? And it’s a really amazing archive but it did not allow for the kind of storytelling that I wanted, which was a kind of a, dare I say, documentary based on this kind of vintage footage. So, I began to research who else was shooting back then. And to see if I could gather a list of them, bring in their footage, and in their footage you could see other people with cameras on their shoulders. These are enormous cameras back then. I would try to locate where that person is. Try to see if that person had lived or died because so many people died so quickly back then. And then pull in those libraries and begin that process all over again. Ultimately, I brought in almost 800 hours of footage from 33 different sources. And that is what allowed me to try to tell this real tiny story in the middle of this epic period. The story of four or five people as they were struggling to survive the epidemic themselves, what they did to make that possible.