David France’s revisiting of the grassroots efforts to find effective treatment for AIDS is the next film in my profiling of Sundance’s US Documentary Competition: HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE
Sundance Program Description:
Faced with their own mortality, an improbable group of mostly HIV-positive young men and women broke the mold as radical warriors taking on Washington and the medical establishment. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE is the story of two coalitions—ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group)—whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition. Despite having no scientific training, these self-made activists infiltrated the pharmaceutical industry and helped identify promising new drugs, moving them from experimental trials to patients in record time. With unfettered access to a treasure trove of never-before-seen archival footage from the 1980s and ’90s, filmmaker David France puts the viewer smack in the middle of the controversial actions, the heated meetings, the heartbreaking failures, and the exultant breakthroughs of heroes in the making.
Blisteringly powerful, HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE transports us back to a vital time of unbridled death, political indifference, and staggering resilience and constructs a commanding archetype for activism today.
Veteran journalist and author David France, currently a contributing editor for New York magazine and former senior editor at Newsweek, makes his directorial debut with this powerful testament to community activism. His writing has previously been adapted or served as the inspiration for film and TV adaptations, including Sundance alum SOLDIER’S GIRL (2003). Working with France is longtime indie producer Howard Gertler, whose Sundance credits include WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER (2001), THE BEST THIEF IN THE WORLD (2004), and WORLD’S GREATEST DAD (2009), as well as SHORTBUS. The project’s executive producers include Dan Cogan of Impact Partners, which brings together filmmakers and investors to finance projects that can foster social change. Noted New York philanthropist Henry van Ameringen (who was one of NewFest’s major donors during my time there) serves as a co-producer of the film; he previously took a producing credit on Sundance alum 8: THE MORMON PROPOSITION (2010). Also taking a co-producer credit is another noted philanthropist, Ted Snowdon, who also is active as a producer of theatre in NYC.
Why You Should Watch:
France’s film is intensely emotionally affecting. Inspiring yet sobering at the same time, the remarkable archival footage captures an insider’s view of a community essentially under siege, forced to mobilize and fight for survival. There’s a palpable sense of loss here, with the expectation that the vast majority of the young men and women seen in the film are likely now dead – so much so that it comes as a shock when some of the survivors are featured in present-day interviews. This is a must-see for younger generations of gay men as a reminder of the battles that were fought by a now-lost generation of individuals to contain and address the AIDS epidemic in the face of official negligence.
The film’s Facebook page may be found here. France discusses his doc in a “Meet the Artists” interview for Sundance here, and with Indiewire here. For screening dates and times at Sundance, click the link in the first paragraph.