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Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award: David France

By Tom White

Editor's Note: In the month leading up to the Academy Awards, we at IDA will be featuring articles — some new, some from our archives—about each of the nominees in the Documentary Feature and Documentary Short Subject categories. Here is an article from the Winter 2013 issue of Documentary magazine about David France, director/producer of How to Survive a Plague.

David France, the recipient of the 2012 Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award, may be new to nonfiction media, but his roots as a journalist run long and deep. He started covering the AIDS epidemic at the very beginning in 1981, as a reporter for The Village Voice and, over the next three decades, he expanded his publishing credentials across the general interest spectrum: GQ, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, New York and Newsweek. His articles and books have inspired feature films that have in turn earned Emmy and Writers Guild of America Award nominations and a Peabody Award.

But it was his dogged, day-in, day-out coverage of the AIDS epidemic through the mid-1990s that compelled him to revisit this period anew via documentary. Through the reflections of an intrepid corps of protagonists from this crucial period of activism, and a riveting cache of ground-level archival footage shot primarily by the foot soldiers of the movement, How to Survive a Plague animates this crucial period in recent American history, when two coalitions, ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), made a difference in both finding ways to manage the disease and taking their place in the pantheon of civil rights movements in America.

Documentary magazine spoke with David France via e-mail.


Your primary medium over the past few decades has been investigative print journalism. What aspects of that career have served you best in your first foray into documentary filmmaking? Where are the commonalities? What were the biggest challenges in making this transition?

David France: In my journalism career, I've been a practitioner of the long-form, narrative, nonfiction story. For one thing, this has suited my character better than daily newspaper reporting ever could. It allows me to vent my curiosity not only about buried facts but also about the intimate human stories behind them. I'm morbidly curious about other people's lives, in fact. So my articles and books are built around personal journeys, much as films are. Cavalierly, I suppose, I convinced myself it would be easy to make the transition to film. What I wasn't prepared for was the spare economy of storytelling in film. My first cut was 13 hours long. It just went against my instincts to pare down historically important scenes to a few key exchanges and shrink the dramatis personae to a reasonable lot. In order to bring the film to under three hours-then finally under two—it took months and months of triage and bereavement. My editors consoled me by saying what I learned was the great lie of the cutting room: "You can put it in the DVD extras!"


A few of your books and articles have served as the bases for feature films, on which you served as consultant. How did those experiences figure in approaching How to Survive a Plague?

It's thrilling, and a little nerve-wracking, frankly, to watch a piece of journalism be transformed into a scripted feature. The actors need good parts, I understand that; that can require great conjurings of the imagination and elasticizing of facts. So for most of those films, my job was to provide the facts and see how they influenced the greater power of story and narrative and ego. Only with Our Fathers, on which I had a co-executive producer credit, was I invited to contribute to the script. This was humbling. For me it was a lesson in structure and finding the emotional power of genuine facts-and finding a way to lay out those facts in chronological and true order without compromising the cinematic effect.


You started covering the AIDS epidemic from the very beginning, in 1981; How to Survive a Plague focuses on 1987 to 1995. To a certain extent you're assuming several roles here: a journalist, a filmmaker and a historian. Come to think of it, you're also a de facto memoirist, since you're reviving a period that is very much part of your personal experience.

How did you reconcile those sensibilities—that of a journalist, having covered the epidemic extensively for a 15-year period; that of a historian, having brought to life a period that is now history; and that of a memoirist, returning to a time you covered and lived through, after having distanced yourself from it?

It's freaky to watch your own past become history—a thing to be taught in school, like the Civil War. Still, I've always known that what we lived through, what I witnessed, was the major and defining moment for our American generation: The most deadly plague in modern times; the hideous decimation of the gay community; the forced modernization of scientific method; and the ascent of a number of unlikely, world-changing heroes. When those things unfold before your eyes, you know what you're watching will be discussed and studied for generations. But you also know the costs. The fear that consumed us then will scar us forever. And the irretrievable losses...our lover, Doug Gould, to whom the film is dedicated.

Doug sat next to me at the meetings depicted in the film, and accompanied me to the many protests-me, a reporter, there to give witness; Doug, trolling for hope as the lesions spread across his skin, desperate for a future he wouldn't reach. For me, going back to this bleak era by way of the intense and intimate archival footage allowed me to resume a mourning process I'd put on pause years ago. The journey has been my long-delayed catharsis. But the footage told me something else, something I'd forgotten. It was also a time of joy and laughter and love. It was a time of great friendship, of connectedness and respect. Ours wasn't just a battle to survive, but to imagine and defend a brilliant sort of life, irrepressible and defiant—Technicolor.


What drives How to Survive a Plague is not only the riveting reflections by your protagonists as they look back on that movement, but also the archival footage. Talk about the process of creating the narrative through this footage.

There was a small army of videographers weaving in and out of all the meetings, marches, sit-ins and kiss-ins. They were early converts in the prosumer video revolution. Some were artists and filmmakers, while others were creating alternative news programs for public-access cable, or dedicated to surveilling the police, or capturing the lives around them before they were snatched away. There were so many of them, so constantly present, that as I was beginning this project I theorized there might be enough footage to allow me to reconstitute a sort of  "found vérité" documentary. I worked for two years to pull in archival collections from over 30 cinematographers before the theory proved possible. I had found footage of my main subjects over nearly a decade; in fact, I had coverage on key scenes, sometimes three and four and five camera rolls with complimentary points of view. My editors, Woody Richman and Tyler Walk, brilliantly crafted together disparate styles into a unified visual language.

But creating the script was a different story. Early on, I had produced a narrative story of the film I wanted to tell, and we methodically cut scenes that fit that story line-too many scenes, as I said before. So the story developed in large part through deletions. We used a cards-on-the-wall approach to compress and distill the story to its tight narrative arc. Heartbreaking for me were the people whose stories I couldn't include ultimately. Entire lives left the film as we edited, including one of my best friends — that's how ruthless I was. Ultimately it was necessary for me to remove myself emotionally from the footage in order to discover the simple narrative in it.


Over the past year or so, four documentaries have been released that look back on the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco and New York during the 1980s-We Were Here, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, Vito and your film. What compelled you to say to yourself, "Now's the time to tell this story?"

Actually, we've continued telling AIDS stories through the years. A few powerful films come to mind: The Lazarus Effect (2010), The Origin of AIDS (2004) and Rory Kennedy's monumental Pandemic: Facing AIDS (2003). But they are portraits of the epidemic today. The more recent films you mention have looked back at what I've been calling "old AIDS." Besides the ones you cite are Sex Positive (2008) and Sex in an Epidemic (2010), both about the invention of safe sex. I think the difference in the past year or so is our new collective readiness to look back at the plague years in America in search of meaning, to borrow a phrase from Viktor Frankl, the holocaust survivor. Fifteen or so years have passed since combination therapy stopped HIV from being a death sentence. By comparison, though Frankl wrote his first book just years after his liberation, the explosion of witness accounts from the camps also took about 15 years to erupt. I think this has to do with the way our brains process tragedies and their disorienting aftermath. We try to look forward, initially, not back.

For a long time, we were content to let that time be defined by a partial narrative, painting that time as an exhaustingly grim era, when in fact it was so that and much more—a time of revolution and emergence and most of all heroics. Perhaps it takes the intercession of time to allow us to celebrate the good that accompanied the bad. Or maybe it just isn't appropriate to examine the survivors' journeys until the ache of grief for the dead has begun to recede. What I wanted to do with How to Survive a Plague was to reframe the narrative with a richer and more complex view-and to correct the historic record. I wanted to make a film that engendered belly laughs and admiration and inspiration and love, inside the unmitigated horror of AIDS.


When we covered How to Survive a Plague in an earlier issue of Documentary magazine, you cited Eyes on the Prize as an inspiration for your film. What was it about that series that drove your process?

DF: What Eyes on the Prize did for me, as a young viewer, was teach me that the Civil Rights movement-brave and triumphal—was American history, my history, the legacy I inherited as an American. Though I grew up in a largely white suburb in the Midwest, it showed me how the country I lived in had been shaped and improved by this history. I was indebted to those activists. That's what I wanted to do with How to Survive a Plague. I wanted to induct it into the American canon of transformative historical events, to show that what these folks accomplished isn't just a gay story—and it is that, in heels-but is also now part of the DNA of our nation alongside the Revolutionary War, the abolitionist and suffragist movements, Civil Rights, the women's health movement and so many others. I hope it will help show a new generation of Americans what they owe to AIDS activists.

I should add that there's a terrible shortage of gay hero figures, which says more about the way we anoint heroes than to the numbers of gay people actually doing heroic things. As Eyes on the Prize canonized the heroic accomplishments of individuals who until then I didn't know, I hope How to Survive a Plague will do the same for Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, Iris Long and the other activists who created the paradigm for modern patient advocacy and drug research.

Peter Staley triumphantly finishes hanging banner over the main entrance to the FDA main headquarters. Photo: Rick Reinhard


You're currently working on a book about the history of AIDS. Referring back to my first question, how has the filmmaking process informed your writing process?

I have to admit that the biggest surprise for me as I moved from book-writing to filmmaking was how much I enjoyed the collaborative process, so it's been a somewhat painful process for me to return to the solitary precincts of a writer's life. What I bring with me from my filmmaking experience is a respect for brevity. I'm not finished yet, but I've made a vow to keep my book at 300 pages. If I can pull it off, that'll be a first for me!


What are your future filmmaking projects?

I do intend to make another film. I've started a production company, Public Square Films, with my executive producer, Joy Tomchin, but I have not yet settled on a subject.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.