Q & A-'Plague' documentary chronicles early AIDS movement

By Zorianna Kit

LOS ANGELES, Jan 8 (Reuters) - David France's historical documentary "How To Survive A Plague," about crusading 1980s activists battling the AIDS epidemic, took form when the journalist came upon a wealth of video footage as he began researching what he thought would be a writing project.

The film, which is on the shortlist for a possible best documentary feature Oscar nomination later this week, chronicles a group of HIV-positive New Yorkers during the 1980s who became committed activists, taking on both the government and the big drug companies in order to save their own lives.

France, a first-time film-maker, spoke to Reuters about the project.

Q: What made you decide to make your film making debut on a topic with such a vast scope?

A: I wanted go back in time before the advent of effective (H.I.V. medication) and see what sense I could make of it. Originally I thought I would do it as a writing project, so I (began to look at) the footage of some of the cameras from back then, thinking that it would be a good way for me to remember what was going on at that time.

Q: How did a writing project turn in to a film project?

A: I realized the power of that footage. The footage itself was a major character in the story, a key face of AIDS activism - this effort to capture events as they were happening in a way that was being ignored by the mainstream media. I was captivated by that footage, and thought there might be a way to pull together enough of it from different sources to tell a 10-year epic story from behind the curtain.

Q: Obviously there was enough footage since 30 videographers are credited in the film. That's pretty incredible!

A: The camcorder was introduced in 1982 and came out at about the same time as the virus. They found their power simultaneously in a parallel way. The AIDS movement was the first of the modern movements to do its own self-historicizing. I brought in nearly 800 hours of footage from many distinct, parallel and sometimes perpendicular projects that overlapped in significant ways.

Q: How did you decide what to use in your film?

A: I started digging through to see what stories I could tell, how closely I could get to the central action, which action brought us to the drug breakthroughs and the individual people who brought us there. I set about trying to present a verite documentary through the accumulation of unrelated found footage.

Q: Looking back on the finished product, what is the significance that we can all see?

A: That this was a major civil rights movement, a social justice movement. It created a tremendous legacy that we all take for granted today. All of us. Everything about the way medicine and healthcare is practiced today is a direct creation of AIDS activism.

Q: What can other movements today learn from the AIDS movement?

A: To keep pushing forward despite setbacks. You think about what's going on in Egypt now, or the Occupy Movement, both of which started as the same kind of grassroots uprising and are now confronting setbacks. What they can learn from this old story is how to handle that, how to keep moving forward. The AIDS movement was born out of the idea that if they didn't do something, they were going to die.

Q: As a gay man, do you have a personal connection to the AIDS movement?

A: My lover was sick during those (early years) and didn't make it, as so many others didn't. I've never been an activist. I've been an aggressive journalist and AIDS was one of my beats. I went to those (grassroots) meetings looking for facts. So my activism took the form of just trying to find information. I needed that information because I - and others - believed that if they weren't sick now, they were going to get sick. We all felt that we were condemned.

Q: The Oscar nominations are coming up. What would it mean to you if "How to Survive A Plague" earned one?

A: It would be phenomenal, are you kidding? It would allow more people to know that this story exists. Just to even be announced at the Kodak Theater would be the biggest platform ever for this incredible American story. (Reporting By Zorianna Kit; Editing by Vicki Allen)