Death to Silence: A Continuation by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Director David France talks about activism, justice, and the ongoing struggle to find meaning, and his new documentary about the AIDS crisis, How to Survive a Plague.

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A scene from David France HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. Photo by William Lucas Walker. A Sundance Selects release.

First-time director and award-winning journalist David France’s debut film How to Survive a Plague takes audiences deep behind the scenes of the AIDS crisis, from the first tentative cries of pain to the eventual, unrelenting call for a cure. France himself played detective in scouring hours of personal archival footage from the past 30 years, most of it shot by AIDS activists and protesters themselves, to create what is not only a narrative account of the plague’s effect on America but an important historical document and a rousing, visceral experience. When the disease first became extant in the gay community in the ’80s, those afflicted were left to die by their peers. So the afflicted took matters into their own angry hands, adopting the slogan “silence = death.” With the materialization of the activist group ACT UP in Greenwich Village, a community was formed in which an outsider status would bring you inside, and an individual’s “otherness” and ailing isolation allowed them a place within a radical group fighting for a restoration of health. The waging of their war was tinged with both suffering and the emergence of an intense intimacy and sense of community. The effort to manufacture effective AIDS drugs and prevent the HIV diagnosis from becoming an automatic death sentence is painted by France as one long road that was ultimately worth treading. The tone of his documentary is solemn, but uplifting; yes, many died, but they did so that others could live, and those who struggled against society’s ignorance and apathy proved again and again the possibility of human reinvention and perseverance. Today, AIDS is no longer the burden that it used to be: there are helpful drugs, there are resources available to the sick, and above all, there is hope for longer lives that will be worth living.

Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Why do you believe the AIDS epidemic was so widely ignored by government officials and health organizations when the outbreak first occurred? Was this due to its stigma as a “gay disease?”

David France It’s really hard to remember! Gay people were so hated back then. Not just ignored, but hated, and in some cases feared. It was a different time altogether, one that I imagine is hard to wrap your head around for younger people who weren’t there. So when AIDS hit, it was considered politically to be a small problem in a meaningless community. The very first report about AIDS was 41 cases. And if we had mounted some sort of true public health response, we might have contained it. It may never have become the disease that’s now affected over 70 million people. And science knew that; epidemiology knew that. But what they didn’t have was any sense of urgency about protecting the lives of gay people who had the disease. In fact, there was so much religious stuff going on at the time; it was the dawn of the religious Right, that came into power with Ronald Reagan in 1980, and they really felt, and said out loud, that this disease was divine retribution for a sinful lifestyle. And who is going to step in and try to wrestle with divine retribution? So they thought they’d just let it happen. And what happened was a global pandemic that will be with us forever.

AJG And it started to affect not only the “sinners,” but those in the religious communities too.

DF Right; it was everybody. To be fair, in the early days, 1981, nobody knew it was a virus. But even after it was discovered as a virus, it was as though they believed a virus could discriminate, could infect only certain, guilty people and not others. Like this idiot who believes that—

AJG —Women can choose whose sperm will be allowed to impregnate them? (laughter) It’s a very regressive idea.

DF Exactly.

AJG I think the first time I became aware of AIDS as a disease was after being exposed to Rent, the Broadway musical, which I loved as a kid. It’s all about this group of artistic, vibrant young people living in New York, several of whom are gay and some of who contract AIDS and die from the disease. What do you think about that slightly gentler mode of education? Some people need things spelled out in a certain way, in order for them to relate. By seeing these characters on stage (characters who sing, dance, and live with the disease) the general public was perhaps able to feel empathy and compassion instead of fear and pity—this is an effective method of helping people to understand, I think. Rent was a huge success then and remains so today; but of course it didn’t premiere until 1994, years after the AIDS crisis had already risen to the forefront of public awareness.

DF Yeah, I think the challenge that people with AIDS had in the beginning was to try and find that empathy. They did it ultimately, as we see in the film, by attaching their own faces and their own life stories to what was happening. You have someone like Peter Staley [major AIDS activist], someone you can identify with, that you can relate to. He looks just like my neighbor, or my brother, or my friend from college. And suddenly, once they began to force their faces into the public discourse, things began to change. When you start seeing that these people are individuals, they are actual people … . I’ve often said that the first task of AIDS activism is to establish the humanity of a person with AIDS. They did it initially semantically; instead of being called “AIDS patients” or “victims,” they said, call us “people with AIDS.”

AJG Peter Staley, in particular, has a very calm and confident way of speaking. You really feature him heavily in this film. Why did you choose to focus on Peter so much, and what do you admire about him in particular?

DF The film is about how we came up with a solution to this virus, how we wrestled it to the curb. Peter and a number of other people were the key players in that campaign. So historically, he was essential. But also I chose to use this archival footage, to tell the story in real time as though you are watching it, almost as though this were a documentary found in whole on a shelf someplace. And the camera paid attention to Peter; because he was so articulate, and was such a good spokesperson for the cause. And we see him, in the footage, also being a remarkable diplomat in his activism. He was the embodiment of the carrot-and-stick approach. We see it, for example, in the protest when the activists go into a pharmaceutical office. The “stick” is, look, we are chained to the floor of your office, you can try to drag us out of here, but we’re not leaving. We are activists who will stop at nothing. However, Peter also says, if you work with us, we can bring your compound from the test tube to the market in two years. If you don’t work with us, we will make endless trouble for you. And we’re gonna die along the way. Peter had the ability to spell that out in a way people could understand. And you see in the film, in the eyes of the guy they’re speaking to, he can see that this is not just an academic interest anymore, in this compound they were testing—these people needed the drug, or a drug like it, or they were going to die. And they wanted to be partners, not enemies.

AJG Yeah, you can see in that scene when Peter tells the pharmaceutical official “you will be responsible for my murder” if he doesn’t help out with testing the AIDS drugs. Sometimes it takes a more direct approach to force someone to open his or her eyes, something more personal. Which is why it was so important for the activists to really get in peoples’ faces.

DF Peter is just this brilliant historical character. You can see how he’s able to keep an even keel through the whole thing, and keep moving forward. The film covers nine years, and you see him aging through that entire time. You see his despair mounting. But never does he lose track of the goal.

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Peter Staley in a scene from David France HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. Photo by William Lucas Walker. A Sundance Selects release.

AJG And you never see him losing control or erupting into violent anger. He’s always so centered, which is probably what made people want to follow him.

DF Absolutely.

AJG I understand you were a journalist, initially, and this is your first time working as a director on a film. How did you find that transition, and can you talk a little about how you believe the progress of technology has helped in spreading the word about AIDS?

DF Well of course as you see in the film, this was all done before Google, before the Internet. There’s one scene in which a cell phone appears, and it’s the size of a loaf of bread. People laugh out loud at that now. It was early; which shows that the activists’ organizing skills were really well-honed. And their ability to learn things, and find information, without technology, it meant … legwork.

AJG They had to physically walk around and around and hand out flyers.

DF Right, so certainly that has changed. But this is the first movement that came of age with video technology. And the first movement that did it’s own self-narration in video, with the camcorders. You can see in the film, how the technology improves over the years. In the early scenes it’s fuzzy and snowy, and then the snow clears up and it starts getting sharper and sharper, which is a great metaphor for their campaign. Death was coming closer and closer for them, it went from a theoretical to being this inevitable end to their struggle—unless they found some solution. I describe ACT UP and AIDS activism in general as being the last great social justice movement. They were able to leave behind this footage; it’s like a note in a bottle. As you see at the end of the film, many of the people who shot that footage didn’t make it. But their families and lovers and loved ones and friends had the wherewithal to save the footage, their life’s work, and proof of the brilliance of their lives.

AJG How did you find all these video recordings? Was it borrowed from people you knew or from strangers?

DF There is an archive at the New York Public Library of AIDS activism video. I began my work there. Then in that footage, as I reviewed it, I could see other people in the backgrounds with cameras. So I just began the detective’s work of finding those people or their families or estates, and then seeing if we could find the subsequent footage. And sometimes that was detective’s work inside people’s apartments, digging through the depths of their old things to find what we were looking for.

AJG Was anyone resistant to having their footage unearthed and seen by the public? Maybe it was just too painful for them to re-watch?

DF There was a lot of resistance, actually. Both because of the emotional stakes involved in going back and looking at that—those were severe. Ray Navarro, who’s in the film, plays the performance role of “Jesus.” And I knew Ray was shooting back then, because I saw him at demonstrations with cameras, and I knew he had died. I later learned that his mother, who is also in the film visiting him at the hospital, had saved that footage. People had asked her for it in the past, and she had not allowed it out of her apartment. Because for her, it was what Ray left behind, it was the remains of her son’s life and artistic contributions.

AJG It would almost be like giving away her son’s ashes.

DF Exactly.

AJG But you managed to get the footage.

DF Well, we went to her to say, even if you don’t let us use it, let us save it. Video is a very fragile medium. It’s a magnetic medium. It’s not meant to last. And here this stuff was 25 years old and in peril. This was true of all the libraries we went to. We talked to her about wanting to be sure it didn’t get lost. Ultimately, she allowed us to fly to California and help her save it so that others could see it. We discovered such brilliance from Ray and the performance work he was doing around AIDS, which was so politically astute and powerful, and I’m so grateful she allowed us to include it in the film. I feel honored.

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David France, director of HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE. Photo by Karine Laval. A Sundance Selects release.

AJG There are comments made by certain figures towards the end of your film that are really interesting: after the breakthrough in ’96 with the drug that made AIDS no longer a death sentence, a few activists mention how it was hard for them to “relax into life,” and they asked of themselves, “What do I do now?” All of a sudden they had futures stretching out in front of them, and it became hard to find anything quite so fulfilling for them to do, or that would give their lives as much purpose as fighting for the AIDS cause had. What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel this cause became your own reason for living? It certainly began your career as a journalist.

DF The work I was doing and continue to do wasn’t thrilling. It was memorializing. But they weren’t memorializing; they were changing the world. They were saving lives by the millions. They were heroes, unquestionably. And there is a phenomenon that really hasn’t been written about much, about the lives of heroes after their heroic acts are past. Where do they go from there? These people were ordinary people drafted into this extraordinary world, drafted in by their diagnoses, or the diagnoses of their friends. They had no choice but to do this. But the “this” that they were doing was Technicolor. A person once said to me, “When in your life do you wake up every morning having the opportunity to know exactly what you need to do—and know when you go to bed that night, you will have moved the world an inch or two closer to a new place?” When that urgency and agency is taken away from you, when you’re just an ordinary person again … what is that like?

AJG But at the same time, things are so much better now. We have more drugs, more awareness, and even simply the fact of being gay is so much more widely accepted, because of the steps they took.

DF We as [gay] people have a role in civic life that we didn’t have before, that we were excluded from. It’s not possible to make up lies about us the way it used to be. So things are really changed, it’s true. But on this heroics front, I’m reminded of simple stories such as the “baby Jessica who got stuck in a well.” Did you ever hear about this? It was a huge story that arrested the American attention for a number of weeks one summer in the late ’80s. A baby named Jessica had fallen in a well and she was rescued by some big jock guy who agreed to go down and get her, and ultimately he saved her—an ordinary guy who was made heroic. And within two years, he had committed suicide. It happens a lot. Did Dorothy go back to an ordinary life in Kansas? Could you have an ordinary life after you saw that Technicolor world of balloons and multi-colored horses? And that’s what these guys saw.

AJG But even though it’s hard or even impossible to go back, do you really think these people would want to change what happened, if they could?

DF When I started on the project, I realized that a lot of good came from AIDS. And almost all of it came thanks to these guys you see in the film. But still, it would have been better if AIDS never happened.

AJG Which could be said of so many things in the world: we wish they didn’t happen or never existed, but they did and they do.

DF Well, Peter would have become the senator he wanted to become instead of the great AIDS spokesperson, and the rest of them would have all done something different too. They were all knocked off their paths, brutally. And put on another path, in which they attained some alternative version of their original goals. I think it’s a story of triumph and inspiration. But to go through something like that leaves its scars. Naturally.

How to Survive a Plague, directed by David France, opens September 21 at IFC Center in New York.

Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.

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