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Meet the 2012 Sundance Filmmakers #27: David France, 'How To Survive A Plague'

Indiewire By Indiewire Staff | Indiewire January 11, 2012 at 9:30AM

David France, a contributing editor to New York magazine, has had three of his published pieces of work (they've appeared everywhere from GQ and Vanity to Rolling Stone and Glamour, where he served as national affairs editor) turned into films for Showtime Network ("Thanks for a Grateful Nation," "Soldier's Girl" and "Our Fathers" - for which he helped develop the script and co-executive produced). Now "How To Survive A Plague" marks his debut as a director, and the story -- about how activists helped find drugs that stopped AIDS from being death sentence -- will be published in book form in 2013. France notes the timing coincidence of the appearance of HIV and the birth of the camcorder, saying "AIDS activism became the first social movement to film itself. And the images that were captured from back then immediately transport the viewer to a challenging and almost forgotten time in our history." He's wanted to tell the story ever since. What's it about: Faced with their own mortality, an improbable group of mostly HIV-positive young men and women broke the mold as radical warriors taking on Washington and the medical establishment. Says director France: "I first began covering the AIDS epidemic in the very early months of the epidemic, before it was even given a name. I began my career, in fact, as a response to the epidemic. We all had roles to play in the crisis, whether we liked it or not. Demanding answers and uncovering truths was what I settled on as my unique function.
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"How To Survive A Plague."

David France, a contributing editor to New York magazine, has had three of his published pieces of work (they've appeared everywhere from GQ and Vanity to Rolling Stone and Glamour, where he served as national affairs editor) turned into films for Showtime Network ("Thanks for a Grateful Nation," "Soldier's Girl" and "Our Fathers" - for which he helped develop the script and co-executive produced). Now "How To Survive A Plague" marks his debut as a director, and the story -- about how activists helped find drugs that stopped AIDS from being death sentence -- will be published in book form in 2013. France notes the timing coincidence of the appearance of HIV and the birth of the camcorder, saying "AIDS activism became the first social movement to film itself. And the images that were captured from back then immediately transport the viewer to a challenging and almost forgotten time in our history." He's wanted to tell the story ever since.

What's it about: Faced with their own mortality, an improbable group of mostly HIV-positive young men and women broke the mold as radical warriors taking on Washington and the medical establishment.

Says director France: "I first began covering the AIDS epidemic in the very early months of the epidemic, before it was even given a name. I began my career, in fact, as a response to the epidemic. We all had roles to play in the crisis, whether we liked it or not. Demanding answers and uncovering truths was what I settled on as my unique function.

"Working first for the gay presses, I wrote some of the earliest stories about the mysterious disease. When AIDS activism took root, I wrote the first story about ACT UP, for the Village Voice, and covered most of the events which I've included in my film. Deep in the backgrounds of these scenes, there I am, pressed against the walls, filling my notepads. Soon I was writing about AIDS for the New York Times, then Newsweek and New York magazine.

"I was invested in their efforts personally as well. Downtown New York City, where I lived, was a grotesque and up-close battlefield. My upstairs neighbor fell, and the guy on the fourth floor, and the two across the hall. My lover took ill. The cancer darkened his skin but it was the pneumonia that claimed him in 1992 -- four years before new medications changed the course of the plague and made AIDS survival possible.

"For a long time I have wanted to tell the story of how those dark days ended -- the combined brilliance that came together to tame a virus.

"I hope audiences see the real and rich story of the darkest years of the AIDS plague in America -- that alongside the dying and the immense loss, there was also an explosion of creativity, perseverance, generosity, and heroics, not just among the affected communities but within the government and pharmaceutical industry as well. The popular image of AIDS is only about suffering, when the truth was so much more than that."

On the challenges of getting it made: "The film is a found-footage verite documentary, which sounds easier than it turns out to be. I began assembling footage using a large archive of AIDS activism videotapes located at the New York Public Library, in Manhattan. There, I scanned over 1,000 hours of footage in search of the main characters who would propel the narrative in my film, over a ten-year period. Unfortunately, there was not enough material there to tell this story. But in each of those tapes, I could see other people videotaping. The task for me and my team then became more complicated: We set out to find the identity of those people, then undertook the arduous task of trying to find them, hoping they had retained the tapes. Many had been claimed by the plague, unfortunately, in which case we would try to locate their survivors -- their lovers, parents, or children. And when we were lucky enough to acquire another library, the process began again: searching for other shooters, learning their names and fates, finding their libraries, over and over. In this way, we compiled footage from over 30 shooters, and ultimately digitized over 700 hours of footage in which our main characters appeared. It was a massive undertaking that took most of two years and continued up to the day we locked picture."

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they're doing next. We'll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2012 festival.



Keep checking here every day up to the launch for the latest profiles.

This article is related to: Meet the 2012 Sundance Filmmakers, Sundance Film Festival, How to Survive a Plague, Reviews