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How to survive a plague

Documentary-maker David France profiles the AIDS activists who galvanised a generation

In 1987, the world was already six years into the AIDS epidemic. Over sixteen thousand deaths had been recorded, with cases reported in Brazil, Australia and Africa – but none more so than in New York, the American epicentre of the disease. For years, emergency rooms had swelled with patients desperate for a treatment that didn't exist. Morgues turned bodies away for fear of contamination. Some doctors insisted on treating the ill while wearing biohazard suits.

Until ACT UP, government official and health organizations were content to let the problem fester. Mostly comprised of HIV-positive men who refused to die without a fight, the Greenwich Village-based activist group was determined to make a change through direct action. Over the years, they forced AIDS into the national conversation with high-profile stunts like chaining themselves to the VIP balcony of the New York Stock Exchange. They also became recognised experts in virology and pharmaceutical chemistry, paving the way for the discovery of effective HIV drugs in 1996. 

 It’s ironic that through the terrible crucible of this epidemic, we found the beginning of a new civil rights movement

How to Survive a Plague is award-winning journalist David France's documentary about the ACT UP years. Having spent thirty years reporting on the AIDS crisis for the gay press and then for Newsweek and the New York Times, it's as much a historic document as it is a searingly intimate portrait of a generation galvanised to fight an terrifying epidemic. Dazed speaks to France about documenting and living through the "plague years".

Dazed Digital: You covered AIDS as a print journalist since the start of the crisis. Why make a film about it?

David France: So much time had passed since those plague years, as I call them, that people were surprised when I would talk to them about that period. They were surprised as to learn that it was so dire, that the government was so neglectful and sometimes punitive and that it took this tremendous grassroots movement to come together, built by people with HIV themselves and their to get the government to actually do something. We would have not have gotten to 1996 and found effective medication were it not for this movement. So I wanted to tell a story about the triumph of the community in the face of this terrible medical assault and remind people what happened. 

DD: When did you first hear about AIDS?

David France: I can actually tell you – the third of July, 1981, when the New York Times reported on 41 cases of this mysterious new illness, concentrated among gay men in New York with a few in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I thought, “What the hell was happening?” And that’s what I wanted to address as a budding journalist.  

DD: It seems like the movement you document in the film really paved the way for mainstream acceptance of LGBT issues.

David France: Absolutely. 30 years ago, gay people in the United States were not only disenfranchised, but despised in ways that just don’t make any sense to anybody today. It was a punishable offence to be gay, in some states it was a felony, you know, serious jail time. When AIDS came, it found a community that was not at all connected to the rest of the culture. The first thing that activists had to do was to build a bridge back to the mainstream and say, “We are citizens deserving of a basic that all citizens enjoy, especially including compassion and empathy”. It’s kind of ironic that through the terrible crucible of this epidemic, we found the beginning of a new civil rights movement. 

DD: Why do you think there’s been so little attention paid to the activists of the era, as opposed to the civil rights movement? 

David France: Any kind of historical event, especially one that involves such massive deaths, takes a period of time for the culture to be ready to look back and try and make sense of its legacy. I think 15 years is about that interval. So I think it’s just begun and I think we’re just starting to have this conversation.

We carry a great burden of memory; we try to minimise that sometimes, but it doesn’t mean that we’ve moved beyond it

DD: What do you remember of the AIDS crisis, personally?

David France: When the epidemic struck in New York, gay people lived in a geographically defined ghetto. We were not integrated with the city life; you could see AIDS in our neighbourhoods. I remember going to a hospital to visit a friend and I was just walking down the hall, noticing names of other friends outside other doors. If you knew one person with HIV, you knew many. And that was a burden that we all learned to live with, taking care of one another on this regular basis. My lover, whom I dedicate the film to, was sick and died in 1992 before the advent of these medications. We carry a great burden of memory; we try to minimise that sometimes, but it doesn’t mean that we’ve moved beyond it. Spencer Cox, who’s in the film, died about 11 months ago of AIDS, in part because he stopped taking his medication. He really never had addressed his own traumas in having experienced those years. That’s not unusual, to hear that an AIDS survivor doesn’t survive.

DD: How do you think younger LGBT people can make a difference?  

David France: You know, we are being hunted down in Russia, Uganda and parts of Africa, and the Middle East. Even in the United States, there are parts of the country where it’s still is perilous to try to live as a gay person. Our victories are imperfect. I would suggest, you know, start there, and try to build a safety net for gay people around the world.

How to Survive a Plague is out now in the UK.