HIFF Interview: How to Survive a Plague director David France

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HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE is the story of two coalitions—ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group)—whose activism turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition. Faced with their own mortality, a group of mostly HIV-positive men and women broke the mold as radical warriors taking on Washington and the medical establishment.

First-time director and award-winning journalist David France has covered the AIDS crisis for 30 years. In HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGE, France culls a vast array of archival footage to create not just a historical document, but also a visceral recreation of the period through the personal stories of some of movement’s leading participants. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE captures the epic day-by-day battles that finally made AIDS survival possible.

How do you view activism and its effectiveness in today’s culture compared with that of the ‘80s? You’ve mentioned that the AIDS movement was “the first kind of self-documented movement.” ACT UP utilized every type of media outlet available at the time (Public Access TV, Street Theater, Teach-Ins, rally’s, etc.), what sort of difference do you think the Internet and connectivity that exists today could have made?

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and smartphones make organizing a
demonstration easy. They drove tens of thousands of people into the Arab
Spring movement, and filled plazas for Occupy Wall Street. They’re the
powerful tools behind the pro-democracy movement in Moscow and the
anti-austerity grassroots protests in Buenos Aires, Athens, Madrid, and
elsewhere. But for lasting impact, none of those organizing efforts has
yet proved as effective as ACT UP, which operated at the early dawn of
modern connectivity. The people in ACT UP prefigured much of the coming
social network revolution. Their camcorders were the early version of
flip phone cameras. Instead of texting, they pulled together flash mobs
(though they called them “zaps”) via the Phone Tree: Peter calls 10
people, who in turn call 10 people, an so on. Public Access TV was the
early YouTube equivalent. And cell phones did exist then — they were
the size of a loaf of bread, and were prohibitively expensive to own,
but ACT UP rented them regularly so that they could the alert the press
after chaining themselves to some bureaucrat’s ankles, something you
might announce with a Facebook post today. So they weren’t operating in
a totally primitive time, technologically speaking. But lacking
hyper-connectivity had its advantages back then. ACT UP members carried
on all their discussions and strategy sessions face-to-face. They met
every Monday, and in committees even more often. They worked out
disputes and encouraged a kind of creativity and boldness that we
haven’t seen yet in the current movements. It makes me wonder if
Facebook might have hindered the work back then. Unplugging can be its
own powerful social networking tool.

You and your team are creating a new timeline featuring activism on and for AIDS. Could you explain what role you hope this film and timeline will play in the ongoing AIDS crisis?

The online timeline we launched last week is essentially an interactive
version of the events in the film. It’s the brainchild of Tricia
Finneran, who with her team at Veritas is enacting our engagement
campaign around the film. We’re tweeting and Facebooking on the
milestones of the epidemic domestically and globally, with an emphasis
on the role of activism. By the time HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE hit
theaters on September 21, the timeline will be fully populated for the
years 1981 to 1996, when effective AIDS drugs finally changed the
disease prognosis. We want the public to share their experiences in that
time period, with pictures and videos and recollections. And as the film
rolls out and takes a life of its own following September, we want to
see the timeline build into the present and the future. Our underhanded
goal of course is to enthrall people with the history and power of
activism to the point where they want to sign up and take activism into
the future. There’s plenty of work on the ground for contemporary AIDS
advocates. For one thing, the lifesaving drugs aren’t reaching 28
million people in the developing world, for whom surviving the plague is
still only a dream. Think what ACT UP-style activism might do to address
that crisis!

The AIDS movement had pointed and specific goals in regards to the results it wanted, whereas Occupy Wall Street has a breadth of issues it wants to address. Do you feel this umbrella activism is useful or is it holding it back?

Actually, ACT UP was also engaged in “umbrella activism,” to use your
term. As an organization, under the mandate of fighting AIDS, it had a
massive agenda: Convince society of the humanity of gays and IV-drug
users; change news coverage of the epidemic; promote condom us and
needle exchange; make hospitals into safe places for the sick; force Big
Pharma to invest in AIDS research; change the way the NIH investigates
basic science and the FDA regulates drugs (reorganize both agencies);
incorporate women and people of color into trials; build housing for
homeless people with HIV; transform how insurance deals with the disease
and how lawmakers criminalize the afflicted; win a place for patients at
the table; and liberate government funding for all of the above. It
succeeded spectacularly in most of these areas — and remember, they
were in the trenches for most of a decade doing this work. What they
didn’t accomplish, to the lasting disappointment of many members, was
the ultimate goal of nationalizing health care in America, which is as
huge a goal as anything the Occupy people have envisioned and a debate
that burns as hotly today as it did then.


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