by Alexandra Marie Daniels
Arts, Culture & Media Editor
Although it feels like it is a film from the 1990’s recently stumbled upon and re-discovered high up on a shelf in a dusty box, How to Survive a Plague directed by David France and produced by Howard Gertler is a time capsule, crafted into one of the best documentary films you will see this year. It is a gift to be inspired by, to learn from, and to never forget what began in Greenwich Village in the 1980’s and became one of the most transformative human rights social justice movements since feminism and civil rights.
How to Survive a Plague is David France’s directorial debut. As a journalist, he has been covering the AIDS crisis for thirty years and before the epidemic was even named, he began writing about it. Through the art of documentary filmmaking, he and Howard Gertler preserve the work of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and capture an important piece of American history. The film is a tool for human rights activism and future movements worldwide. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with the filmmakers and discuss the making of the film.
How to Survive a Plague illustrates the ten-year period of the plague before the advent of effective medication in 1996. In France’s words this “was a period not just of tragedy - and the tragedy was extreme, and the loss was extreme - but it was also a period of great discovery of empowerment for a community.” The filmmakers wanted to preserve that history and show how “what confounded science took outsiders, AIDS patients and their advocates, to break through.” What is so inspiring is to witness “bond traders, and high school drop outs, and playwrights, and film archivists sitting at tables with Nobel prize winners and working together collaboratively and trying to find solutions to this problem.”
In order to make the film France and Gertler had to become detectives, compiling and organizing massive amounts of footage. Thirty-one cinematographers are credited in the film. France explains how the extensive process unfolded. “What we discovered early on was that there was so much video being shot during the years that are covered in the film [1987 to 1996] that it was possible, at least theoretically, to build up a kind of vérité documentary by piecing together footage from numerous cinematographers.” Their idea was to make a film “that would bring you back to that time in a real visceral way and watch events unfold over a decade as they were unfolding.”
For two years the filmmakers repeated a process that consisted of finding an individual’s private collection, preserving it, then viewing the collection and examining the background to see who else had cameras. Explaining this process, France says, “It became a detective’s work after that. We would try and see if we could get a clean shot of their face, find anybody who might have known them…with the hope that we could find their collections still intact.”
Over two years, with over 700 hours of usable raw footage, it took two editors - T. Woody Richman and Tyler H. Walk - and two cutting rooms “to process that footage, trying to understand where stories were in that footage, and where the holes were.” The team sought perfection and continually added new footage. France shares that they were substituting shots right up to the eve of the film’s premiere at Sundance.
“It was crazy,” he recalls. “We became kind of maniacal about our need to get the better shot or a piece of the history that we knew existed but we hadn’t yet found in the footage.” A side project of the film has been an effort to preserve the archival footage the filmmaker’s collected. In fact, their appeal to original activist cinematographers was often “you don’t have to agree to let us use it, but please let us save it so it doesn’t go away.”
In a moving account about this unique footage gathering process, Howard Gertler shares the story of reaching out to Patricia Navarro whose son, artist Ray Navarro, died from the plague in 1990. Previously, she had been reluctant to part with the tapes. “We reached out to her and explained to her what the project was/is, what her son meant to both us personally, and also in the scope of the film and the story.” Gertler wrote “how meaningful it would be if we could take a look at those tapes and see if there is anything in there that might fit in with the structure of the story we were telling.” He sent this in a long email and that evening Gertler received a phone call from number he didn’t recognize. It was Ray’s mother saying “I got your email and I think I am finally ready to let go.”
Hitting the theaters today, the film has already had a global impact. After premiering at Sundance, France received an email from a member of the organizing team behind the pro-democracy movement in Russia who felt the film could benefit them on the ground locally in Moscow. France and Gertler readily supplied her with a copy of the film.
France explains how they are showing the film in underground screenings “as a model for how to incorporate people with expertise in various walks of life into a single struggle.” As the film is only being translated now, a live interpreter has attended the Moscow screenings, pausing the film to discuss what they are seeing and how it can be applied to what they are doing. How to Survive a Plague exemplifies “how to capitalize on the knowledge and experience of individuals in the collective, how to confront failure and find new approaches” as well as “how to work collectively in ways that acknowledge individual differences but keep an eye on the ultimate goal.”
The State Department, quite surprisingly, is showing the film in screenings around the world, starting in Eastern Europe “as part of their campaign linking Lesbian and Gay rights for the first time to Human Rights as a measure for the state department in foreign policy.” The filmmakers made sure How to Survive a Plague was screened in Washington to people in positions of power. They “wanted to bring the film to everybody who is in some way involved in, or implicated in, or discussed in the film and the State Department especially has been very aggressive in their embrace of it from the start.”
How to Survive a Plague effectively shows how AIDS treatment activism “was really a new paradigm for activism.” It is an “example of how disenfranchised individuals can organize around any obstacle and find a way to clear it.” If, like me you become inspired by this film and ask, “what can I do?” a social action campaign is running concurrently to the film’s release. As Gertler shares, “it is a resource for people who want to do a deeper dive into the history of the treatment activism that they see in the film as well as a portal to engage with activism on the ground today.”
This uplifting, inspiring documentary will have long-lasting and far-reaching effects. I look forward to the day when How to Survive a Plague is standard viewing for high school and college curriculums across the country.
About the author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. Born in California, at age 17 she moved to New York City, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She choreographed and taught with Jacques D'Amboise's National Dance Institute and in 2000 returned to Sarah Lawrence to receive her Master of Fine Arts degree in dance. In 2007, Ms. Daniels attended the Los Angeles Film School and has since been working in film. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. She is the Arts, Culture, & Media Editor for The WIP.