David France says Oscar nominee 'How to Survive a Plague' is already a 'winner'
And how about that Ed Koch?
Oh, yeah. What was clear is that any time there was a demonstration I had coverage. I could watch people walking into the room from four or five different angle sometimes. I could watch people be arrested from multiple cameras. But it's what was going on really behind closed doors, that was harder to find. It was not impossible to find 'cause even among that inner circle and the people whose stories are the backbone to 'How to Survive a Plague,' one of them was a video artist who had studied early video, had art degrees and had his camera with him at all times. So, you really see in those scenes where our people are sitting in their living rooms talking about their fears and their disappointments and their longings. They’re so comfortable with the camera that it’s though it’s not even there. These cameras became fly’s on the wall. And it allowed us to this really remarkably intimate view on what turned out to be massive global movement.
Q: A number of the key figures that you sort of are referencing in the stories over this period were still alive when you were shooting it. Was there any one that didn't want to meet and talk to you that you were sort of disappointed with?
Absolutely. First of all, there was kind of resistance across the board from the subjects as well as from the cinematographers. And the resistance was partly about the fact that I was an outsider. I was there on the margins of what they were doing as a journalist. I was not one of them. [There was also] a larger resistance to go back and reconsider that time at all. Knowing it was so, such a dark and difficult time that people really were reluctant to open up their storage unit they put those memories in. Probably the hardest for me to negotiate was with the mother of Ray Navarro. Do you remember Ray in the film?
Q: Not offhand.
He played Jesus Christ.
Q: Oh, O.K. Right.
And he was a performance artist. And he was creating his own kind of artistic commentary on his AIDS activism and on AIDS and the larger culture; a really brilliant artist. And of course he dies. His mother became the caretaker of his work. I knew others have gone to her, friends of his had gone to her asked to study that work and she had turned ‘em down because she didn't, you know, she cherished it and protected it and guarded it as though it were, you know, somehow it held his spirit. And in a way, it does hold his spirit, as you can see from the footage that we used. [I reached out to her, but] I expected her to give me the same of response. I think it may have just been the timing was right.
[The video recordings were] not intended to last all these years. This footage was, the earliest, earliest iterations of video technology from 30 years ago. So, we did this kind of quality digitizing of the footage and was able to save it for her and for future generations, and also to gain her trust to allow us to tell a story about her son’s brilliance but also about his illness, and ultimately, his death. And that was an enormous achievement on her part I think for her to come to that place.
Q: It's been a long year for you since the film debuted at Sundance to the release to now the Oscar nominations. Is there any moment in particular that sands out the most?
Y'know, the Oscar nomination did a really interesting thing. It lowered the age of our audience. And I think maybe in combination with the work that we were doing, through our outreach engagement, we were trying to bring this story to college students. The nomination really effectively did that. So, already we're winners in away that it’s opened up an audience for us that is coming to the film now not thinking that they know what it is. Not thinking that they know the history of AIDS [but] that there's something in this history they haven’t been told before and it’s worth the 110 minutes. In fact, is kind of a tremendous journey.
Q: I have a number of significantly younger friends and I sort of feel like they need to watch it because they don’t get it. They obviously don’t know what it was like to live during that era of fear.
Q: And I think in that respect it’s hugely powerful, and so congratulations on that.
Thank you. I think it also gives people heroes.
It's like ordinary people who are heroes and we don't have any gay heroes. We have very few. These guys are in they’re 20s transforming healthcare. Changing millions of lives. They saved so far eight million lives. Crazy the impact of what they’ve done.
Q: You know, I have to - that actually reminded me something speaking of heroes - one of the big villains, and that’s my word not yours, in the doc is Ed Koch. And I’m curious what you thought of the reaction to his passing and what your feelings were on that.
Well, you know, and this I think might even be another area that is not from the documentary but when he died the New York Times ran, I don’t know 15,000 word obituary. Probably something they had sitting around inn the queue for, I don’t know, years. And it didn’t mention AIDS, except in a side, in a fraction of a sentence. That was one of his detractor's points, his handling of AIDS as being a less than stellar part of his tenure. But almost immediately after the piece came out, the uproar from readers of that obituary was so great that the Times had to circle back and correct it. And within an hour they issued a correction to the obituary. And I can’t think of a time that that’s ever happened before that the correction was explicitly and solely to put the appraisal of his handling of AIDS in the central part of his biography. And as I’ve been saying about Ed Koch, his failure in AIDS should be, and is, the defining cornerstone of this public life. Nothing else played as big as role historically as that. And I think if it weren’t for 'How to Survive a Plague' and the kind of consciousness that it’s helped create and recall that the New York Times would not have gone back and he made those corrections.
Q: But you don't blame Reagan more? Or even George HW Bush? You don’t think that they were as…?
No. I hold them up to a different standard because what they could’ve done, and didn’t do, was contain an epidemic. Koch was in no position to handle containment. When the federal government first was alerted to the disease, there were just 41 cases. I mean 41 cases, and they did nothing that week, or that month, or that year, or that decade. And today there are over 35 million dead from the disease, including almost two million Americans, including almost 100,000 New Yorkers and that didn’t have to be. And on a federal level, I think you can hold people who don’t act culpable in those deaths. We didn’t have to have this epidemic.
We didn’t have to do this.
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