To make his new film, “How to Survive a Plague,” David France amassed an epic amount of material from the desperate days of AIDS activism. He sifted through 700 hours of footage, and he recorded nearly 100 hours of original interviews with prominent activists, many of whom wept as they told their stories of survival. As the interviewer, France spent hours sobbing and blowing his nose.
Yet there is not much crying amid the relentless tension of the just-opened “How to Survive a Plague,” the story of the fierce activism that led to the historic medical breakthroughs that have contained the HIV pandemic.
“The story I wanted to tell is really a story of triumph,” said France, in town last spring for a screening at the Independent Film Festival Boston. “I thought, keep your tears to yourself. We’ll weep on the DVD extras.”
Despite the overwhelming tragedy of the AIDS era — since recognition of the virus in the early 1980s, HIV has taken the lives of tens of millions — France, an investigative reporter and first-time film director, said he doesn’t feel as though he’s telling “an AIDS story. The story is about activism and how it can work, how soaringly successful it can be.”
His film recounts the lives of some ordinary men and women — among them Peter Staley, a former bond trader who became the national media’s face of the AIDS crisis; Bob Rafsky, a divorced father who worked in PR but longed to be a writer; and Garance Franke-Ruta, a high school dropout who went on to graduate from Harvard and become a respected journalist — whose courage and determination helped raise mainstream awareness about the AIDS virus and hastened FDA approval of the drugs that have slowed the spread of the disease.
“They were sitting with Nobel Prize winners, as partners, puzzling through research problems,” said France. “Until this moment, the idea that you could wrestle a viral infection to the ground was only a dream. And they did it.”
France, the author of a book on the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal and another with former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, was one of the first journalists to cover the work of ACT UP and other AIDS activists. Though a gay man himself — his lover died of AIDS in 1992 — he made a point to stay on the fringe of the movement.
While anyone who had attended two meetings of ACT UP was eligible to vote, he recalled, “I always abstained. In fact, I almost never sat. I felt, even in my physical stance, that I had to separate myself. I was so studious about being a fly on the wall.”
Yet his interest was personal. “I was terrified by the whole epidemic,” he said. “Everyone I knew was sick. I was hoping I could find an answer somehow as a reporter.”
The public awareness campaign spearheaded by ACT UP, sometimes involving acts of civil disobedience and other strategic, media-savvy events, was critical, said Rebecca Haag, president of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts.
“We went from ‘This is a death sentence,’ mourning our friends, to ‘We’re not going to take it anymore,’ ” she recalled in a recent phone call. “We kept thinking the government would respond — there will be a cure, and we just have to take care of our friends until the time comes.”
Instead, she said, it became “a battle for survival,” one that the activists won. “They changed the whole course of public health history. They accelerated [the process of] getting drugs to the market, and they planted the seed for the whole idea of patient involvement.”
To compile his film, France scoured the network of activists for their own home videos of the movement, offering to digitize entire libraries in exchange for the use of their footage (much of it, from meetings, demonstrations, and funerals, never before seen). He had to convince the mother of the late conceptual artist Ray Navarro that he would take care of her son’s tapes: “To her, they were like his earthly remains.”
In the vast personal archive of Bill Bahlman, a cable-access television host in New York, he discovered close-up footage of one particularly profound moment.
“He told me, ‘I have the gold,’ ” France recalled. “I didn’t know what the gold would be.” Amid several visits to Bahlman’s cluttered apartment (“He’d call and say, ‘I have a feeling there are more tapes over in this corner,’ like he had some sort of divining rod,” France jokes), the filmmaker came across a powerful speech delivered off the cuff at a contentious ACT UP meeting. The impassioned speaker was the playwright Larry Kramer, who called the pandemic a “plague” and unleashed a tirade against the various factions that were jeopardizing the movement with their infighting.
France said he had already named his film by the time he discovered this footage. “That there was a camera on him in that tight, tight, tight way, full face, in the middle of this cacophony, and he bursts out with the word plague — that was stunning.”
Haag said she hopes the film will reinvigorate AIDS activism.
“It’s a very different era now, but with the complacency around HIV and AIDS, there are times I wish [today’s activists] had the dramatic flair that they once had,” she said. “Those people who ultimately survived, many have almost had to put it out of their mind to move beyond it, not unlike the World War II survivors, who didn’t talk about it for years and years.
“We still need to capture some of that flair for finding the right tone for spreading awareness. We haven’t stopped the epidemic.”
During his visit to Boston, France said he believes the AIDS activist movement deserves a place in the canon of American history.
“And that’s gay America as well as non-gay America. Nobody under 30, gay or straight, has any idea that this took place — this amazing confluence of people that transformed a plague, and almost everything about health care in America. . . . It’s what we call an American story: People from entirely outside, shut out of power, who find a way to get into the center of power and make a difference.”
Naming his film, he said, was important. “I wanted a title that reflected that audacity. And maybe one that didn’t necessarily say ‘AIDS.’ ”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.