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Interview: David France - How to Survive a Plague

We speak to the director of this stunning film about the early days of AIDS activism.

What made you undertake this film project initially?
When I began working on How to Survive a Plague a few years ago, it had been just 15 years since the advent of modern HIV drugs and the end of the "plague years" of the epidemic, when a diagnosis was almost certainly a death sentence. Those little pills saved millions and millions of lives. In developed countries, the hospital wards that had been full of AIDS patients emptied out. And many of us went about the business of an ordinary life - the ordinary life we fought so hard for and finally could enjoy. At that point, for the most part, we stopped talking about what we had seen, what we had lost, and what we accomplished as a community. And this history risked getting lost. Remember, this was a time when our governments, neighbours, and even family members had rejected us. With this film, I wanted to remind the world of the lasting legacy of AIDS activists. With no training in science or medicine - and armed with little more than a fierce will to live - AIDS activists were responsible for helping to identify the effective drugs and bringing them to market. It's an incredibly proud moment for the gay community, and deserves to be celebrated by all who have benefited, now and in future generations.

What was the most emotional part for you personally while directing and filming it?
As a young journalist I was a witness to many of the scenes in the film. Scanning the archival footage, I found myself looking for friends and lovers, thinking about people I hadn't thought of for many years, some long gone. So many young and bright faces - of people who never made it past 30. And then I began to find myself in the footage. For me that was quite emotionally surprising. I could see the fear in my own face, in the way i carried my body - everything about me reflected uncertainty, terror, and desperation. It was nearly impossible to live at a time of such peril, when people on your left or right were simply vanishing from sight, and even more impossible to recall what that felt like. Seeing it on our 20-year-old faces brought me right back to those days of purpose, of urgency, and of roiling terror.

As well as that fear and uncertainty, you also mentioned the bravery of the subjects in the footage. Who in particular did you find the most inspiring?
In the course of editing the film, the amazing activism of Bob Rafsky stood out to me in new ways. Like so many of the people whose stories are chronicled in SURVIVE, Bob's life was utterly derailed by his diagnosis. He had such enormous plans for his life, not the least of them was to see his daughter grow into adulthood and find peace finally with his late-in-life embrace of the gay community. That changed when he was told he had 18 months to live. But we clearly see how he took charge of his life in amazing ways, and ultimately despite his diagnosis he was able to become a leader in the community. And he became the role model his daughter would look to all her life.

Amazing. OK, moving on to 2013. With the news that 45% of new HIV infections across the globe are in the 16-24 age group, do you think this is a film every person under a certain age must see?
Of course they should. We should all work so much harder to help our younger brothers protect themselves. But for LGBT youth, the central message in How to Survive a Plague isn't about transmission rates, or prevention techniques, or research developments. It isn't even about HIV, ultimately. It's about the untapped strength of our community to change the world. We lack gay and lesbian heroes in popular culture. But that's not because there haven't been gay and lesbian heroes. A generation of queers managed to harness a killer virus. That's phenomenal. That's a historic fact. And it should be an inspiration to all future generations, especially but not limited to LGBTs.

What are your thoughts on how HIV/AIDS is currently covered by the mainstream media?
There has been a deafening silence around HIV, not just in mainstream media but especially in the community press and blogosphere. This has driven a resurgence of infections and the mistaken belief that being positive is at worst an inconvenience. We've got to own this disease. From day-one to today, AIDS is a gay issue. If we don't talk about it among ourselves, we'll never make progress stopping it.

The film is wonderful. How did it feel to win your GLAAD media award for outstanding documentary?
That was an amazing night. The judges at GLAAD recognized the power of our storytelling, and they joined me in celebrating the role that AIDS activism has played in our community's many advances over the past three decades. The award told me we had achieved our goals beyond my wildest dreams. I was humbled by their support for the film and for me as a filmmaker. Doubly humbled, actually: It's my second GLAAD award.

What's next for you?
I'm finishing writing a narrative history of this period for publication in 2015. It's a deeper and broader history of AIDS treatment activism written from my personal perspective, as an eyewitness on the ground throughout the entire sweep of this long and messy and triumphant struggle.

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE is in cinemas from 8 November. Visit the website, @SurvivePlagueUK, their Facebook page.

See the trailer below...

How to Survive a Plague from Ford Foundation on Vimeo.

Words: Lee Dalloway (@Leerordalvin) and Nicholas Charles @Charlsnick.

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