September 27, 2012 at 10:07 am EDT | by Brian T. Carney
I will survive
Peter Staley, How to Survive a Plague

Peter Staley in a scene from ‘How to Survive a Plague.’ (photo by William Lucas Walker courtesy Sundance Selects)

As a journalist, openly gay writer David France is pretty fearless. The award-winning author has tackled such topics as the AIDS crisis, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the coming-out of former New Jersey governor James McGreevey and the brutal murder of Private Barry Winchell.

But, when he was poised to make the leap to documentary filmmaker, there was one thing that terrified him — the soundtrack.

“That aspect of film-making was nerve-wracking,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep. I write in total silence. I don’t play any music at all. Print journalists don’t have to deal with music. There has never been any musical accompaniment to anything I have done before.”

Luckily, he found great partners to help him develop the soundtrack of his first film, the documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” which chronicles the early years of AIDS activism. He turned to the Red Hot Organization, a non-profit musical production company that raises money to support the fight against HIV/AIDS. They suggested he listen the work of Arthur Russell, an avant garde gay songwriter and performer who was living in downtown Manhattan during the time frame covered by the film who died of AIDS-related causes in 1992.

France says that the suggestion was “an inspired proposal.” Paul Heck, executive director at Red Hot, describes Russell’s work as “captivating, personal and profoundly beautiful music that is accessible yet complex all at once.” Heck introduced France to composers Stuart Bogie and Luke O’Malley who began work on the score based on Russell’s music. At first, the collaboration was a challenge for France, who says, “I didn’t have the words to talk about the music.” Luckily, he learned to trust his instincts.

“I just started talking about how it felt, and that’s how we worked out the score.”

The narrative and visual aspects of documentary filmmaking came more easily to the novice director.

“I’ve always been a long-form journalist, so I’ve always been a storyteller. I decided to undertake a major project and look at the early days of AIDS activism, to try and make sense of what happened. What more could time tell us about those early days?”

He knew the New York Public Library had an extensive collection of amateur and professional movies made by AIDS activists during that period, so he dove in.

“I immediately jumped to the footage. I got captivated by how immediate and intensely personal and up-close it was. It reminded me how we felt in those early days.”

In the end, France and his team assembled several hundred hours of footage and began editing the material into a feature-length documentary. Aside from a few filmed interviews, this remarkable and powerful film consists entirely of this archival material, primary historical documentation captured by a then-emerging technology: the video camera.

“How to Survive A Plague” uses this riveting archival material, largely shot by the activists themselves at meetings and protests around the country, to tell the story of ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (the Treatment Action Group). As Franco points out, these direct-action groups saved millions of lives by battling hatred, ignorance, complacency and apathy in the face of the emerging plague.

Ultimately they changed the way health care is delivered in this country. By demanding attention, they achieved incredible things.

“The biggest thing is why not ask for the moon? Why not ask for it all? That’s what they did. There was not a single pill and they demanded a cure. Science was not even thinking like that. As total outsiders to that process, they were able to develop an agenda that everyone felt was out of reach and they were able to get close. We don’t have a cure yet, but we’re much closer than we would have been.”

France feels this kind of broad vision is missing from the LGBT movement today.

“We’ve overly narrowed our agenda for the community. Now it’s marriage. There is so much more we could be advocating for more, including a push to combat HIV. There are still high transmission rates for men who have sex with men and the national LGBT groups are not paying attention to that.”

“How to Survive A Plague” opens Oct. 12 at Landmark Theatres in the D.C. area.

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