How to Survive a Plague

Undeniable Witness

David France, Director of HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, talks with V. Anderson About Our History of Fighting Back

Peter Staley in a scene from HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. Photo by WillIam Lucas Walker

I’ve tried writing [fiction] scripts before. But I get over-attached to the truth, and maybe that’s the thing that keeps us journalists.” With a background in long-form journalism, director David France speaks of shaping the groundbreaking events in the footage, shot by the activists who witnessed them, into How To Survive a Plague. This documentary throws the viewer right into the center of the action, causing her to witness the intense emotion, outstanding intelligence and initiative, terrible lows and brilliant successes of this unique group of people who formed ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group, created in 1992 by members of ACT UP), during this unique time—starting in 1987.

V. Anderson: ACT UP brought together such a range of people. Not all movements do this. Why do you think this happened?
David France:
The groups very quickly diversified in that regard as the disease did. By the sixth year, [AIDS] was no longer what it had been in ’82. It wasn’t just the white gay men of privilege who were being swept in, so the organization had a diverse base….What they were fighting about was how science wasn’t keeping up. What [scientists] would say about women was that they were afraid that the drugs would have some hideous impact on unborn children, so if a woman was of child-bearing age, she was excluded from the drug trials. The reason that was disastrous was that drug trials were the only place to get drugs. And if women weren’t let in, that meant women were condemned to immediate death….So while my story follows this one little group of people who happen to be mostly white and mostly men, that’s just one of the strands….

Peter Staley gives an eloquent speech at the 1990 AIDS conference in San Francisco. It seems like the group was really good at recognizing its members’ strengths and strategically utilizing them.
Unlike other groups where individuals with expertise might be considered a threat, in this group anybody with expertise was given power. I guess it was different from Occupy….If you came from the media, as Ann Northrop did, you were given a platform for teaching other people about how to work with the media. Peter wanted to be a politician, and AIDS threw him off the course of his life, but through AIDS he became a kind of a politician. Bob [Rafsky] wanted to be a writer…and he found his voice. I mean, you see it over that ten-year period. Mark [Harrington]…he’s just brilliant. He wrapped his head around things in a way that others couldn’t.

Because of the nature of the footage—that it’s from so many different personal, eyewitness collections—as a viewer I
felt immersed in the story as it organically unfolded.

Well, I like that you called it “organic” storytelling, which is really what we were going for. I was trying to do a kind of a [Paul] Greengrass approach. You know how his stories always kind of begin in the middle? I have very consciously modeled the opening after Bloody Sunday….The idea that you could tell a story by just doing these little snaps of information was something that I borrowed.”

Two other writers are credited in the film. What was it like building the story collaboratively?
I’ve never actually collaborated, and I totally fell in love with it….We just worked until two or three in the morning and we would just puzzle things out together. We had so much footage that there were numerous ways that we could tell various events. The death of one of our characters…we had like five roads that we could go down to tell the story of his death. We would make them, and look at them, and it was not producing the emotional response we were looking for. Ultimately, it was one of those mornings, and we decided to try something. We took the volume off to play it with no ambient sound, and we cried. There we were, weeping together at three in the morning over a death we saw coming….That kind of discovery was new for me and was really thrilling.

What is an example of an alternate way to tell his story? [This person is not named here because the suspense of who survives and who does not is part of the story.]
…[He] died Sunday night….ACT UP meetings are on Mondays, so we have all this footage of the ACT UP meeting where people are finding out. People stand and give speeches, and it was really powerful, [but] it created this despair in the group. Somebody said, “I feel like what [Gore Vidal] said after Eleanor Roosevelt died: ‘We’re on our own now.’” And so that’s how it ended, so powerful, but
so depleting.

I thought that the scene where activists bring the ashes of their dead to the White House gates was extremely moving. Were you there? What does
that scene mean to you?

I was in Washington, so I heard about it right away….It was October 11, ’92 and [my lover] was very sick. He died in November. So I didn’t have an outsider’s view of what they were doing….It made sense to me that desperation would take a dark turn like that. And that began the season of these public funerals, like Mark Fisher’s funeral. That was one of three corpses dragged through the streets. One was brought to Washington to present to the White House lawn, but they were turned back by the cops.

I recognize that it was a desperate move, but it also seemed incredibly loving to those who died.
It was an effort to say, look there is no curtain, you have to see us, what we’ve lost, even if it takes this.

I don’t remember seeing any media coverage of this at the time.
There were no news cameras there. None. You saw how expert these people were at generating media attention. They just didn’t get it for that. And there were only two cameras at Mark Fisher’s funeral, and they were activists’ cameras. But no news footage. On the eve of a Presidential election with a corpse being presented on the streets of New York. That was not worthy of coverage. It’s crazy.

Camcorders had just started to enter the consumer market at that time. ACT UP members seemed acutely conscious of the power of videotape.
Video as tool. As weapon. And as undeniable witness…I wanted to make the movie the way I made it, because that footage is shot from behind the curtain, and then it reminds you that there was a curtain, and how strange that there was an epidemic of that proportion that was somehow hidden.

During the 1992 Presidential election, Bob Rafsky—by heckling Bill Clinton—managed to force AIDS into the campaign. How gutsy of him to do that.
It was pretty intense…and it gave us that famous line, “I feel your pain.” Everybody associates that with Clinton, but he actually said it once, to

Director David France. Photo by Karine Laval

one person, in the context of AIDS, and that we have it on camera is pretty cool. Bob was like a prophet, like a rabbi and had the ability to find those moments and inject in those moments the idea of the true statement. You see him earlier…peeling back his clothing to show his lesions and to talk about his impending death in a way that took every academic argument and stripped it down to its urgency.”

The film strongly conveys the activists’ high stakes and sense of urgency.
That’s why they were there, because it was “please, please, please” for six years….

Did you ask any politicians to comment for the film?
I would like to have asked some questions of Ronald Reagan, because I think that if there’s a truly evil character, it’s him. I think the deaths are directly attributable to what his administration was doing, more so than Koch or Bush senior. He threw obstacles in the way of federal work, and had a panel of experts pulled together. They made sense of what was happening, and he quashed their reports. He knew what was happening….We went from forty-one cases in 1981, when he first learned about it, to seventy million today because nobody did anything when there were forty-one cases. It’s possible that the whole thing could have just been a terrible thing that we paid attention to for a year and got rid of. AIDS and the epidemic didn’t need to happen. Thirty-four million people dead. So far.

It’s extraordinary how the activists had to become, and successfully became, experts in all of these arenas.
What they were doing at first [was taking, distributing, and testing drugs underground] and then this figure comes out of nowhere in the form of Iris Long who—you couldn’t script something like that, or maybe you could and it would seem unreasonable that this totally unfashionable, heterosexual woman from Queens should wander into their fold.

How did that happen?
She knew no gay people. She knew nobody with HIV, nobody with AIDS. She knew pharmaceutical chemistry, and she thought maybe she could help.

[At the ACT UP meeting] she spoke, and no one paid any attention to her whatsoever, because she just was a mysterious creature and she made very little sense when she spoke. Everybody would take the opportunity when she was speaking to
go out and have a cigarette…and then somebody grabbed the microphone and said, “You are idiots, all of you. If we’re going to live, we have to know what she’s talking about”.…And then they all said, “What she’s telling us is that we’re never going to save ourselves by buying pills from Japan. We aren’t going to find the cure; we can’t tear down NIH and FDA and pretend that we can do it ourselves in a parallel way. We’ve got to force them to find a way to do it”.…Would they have done that without Iris? I don’t know.

What do you think of the younger generation’s views on AIDS today?
I think the younger generation is under the impression that there’s no problem. We dropped the ball somewhere….But also, they think that AIDS in history was just a terrible disease that washed in and that the government fixed it, without knowing what incredible, herculean efforts were necessary to fix it….It has fallen out of history, and I’m hoping that the movie helps put it back there, because it was transformative; it gave us the world we have today that we take for granted.

When things are falling apart with the group, Larry Kramer yells that we are in the middle of a “plague.” How do you feel about the use of that word?
I was using the title [How to Survive a Plague] before I found that footage. It was a plague. It remains a pandemic. What’s more shocking is that no one calls it a plague now.

Having garnered acclaim at Sundance and other festivals, How to Survive a Plague is currently playing in theaters. For more information, visit

V. Anderson holds an MFA in Film from New York University. She has worked in India, the Caribbean, and the U.S., and is currently based in New York City.

October 2012