By Elaine Ezekiel, News Editor
The director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague” studied political science and served as news editor of The Index while attending K in the 1970s. In this interview, David France recounts his journey from Kalamazoo to the front lines of the fight against HIV/AIDS, writing for The New York Times, authoring a best-selling book, creating a mini series for ABC, and writing and directing his first documentary film.
With your major, were you thinking about going into politics?
I was. I had started working on my Ph.D. in philosophy. I was in New York in the New School for social research doing my graduate work when AIDS hit, and it kind of derailed some of these things, and for me, it gave me this kind of urgent mission, which was to find information for people and for myself, and that’s why I went back to journalism.
Were there any film classes offered when you were at K?
Not that I knew of. I didn’t take any journalism classes either. I don’t know that there were any of those offered.
You had unbelievable footage to weave together. I’ve never seen anything told like that in documentary form.
It was a stunning, stunning trove of images and truth and kind of beauty — this early VHS-like beauty, which we found a way to embrace.
How did you find that trove?
Well, it was there, the cameras were there, the home video market had just begun to explode then. It was now possible in an affordable way to shoot your own images, and this makes this movement one of the first — maybe the first — that chronicled itself in this way. I began my research by going to an archive that had been kept by [the HIV/AIDS activist group] ACT UP to look at how much of that footage existed and how ambitious could you be, going back to it, to try to tell a story.
There must have been hundreds of hours. What was it like going through all that film?
It was thousands of hours. Most of it had not been preserved in any way, and it existed as this old, fragile video medium. So I was just looking for these very narrow stories. I found just under 800 hours of footage specifically useful for this story, and that’s what I digitized and bring in for editing.
Wow. How long did that production take?
I think the first time I looked at the footage was January 2009, and then we premiered the film in January 2012. So three years, and in the meantime, I had to figure out how to make a film.
Why did you think you could do that?
Utter hubris. No, I just knew that the story was incredible and I could do nothing to destroy it, and the footage was so powerful and intimate and visceral, that really the whole thing could tell itself.
Returning to the past, in your time working as a storyteller getting information out there about the movement and possible treatments for HIV/AIDS, was there a newspaper that would publish your work?
In the early ‘80s when AIDS first hit, nobody was writing about AIDS, and in late 1981, a group of people started a newspaper in New York for gay men, largely. It was called the New York Native, and The Native was the first and only periodical to cover the epidemic for many years, and it was a weekly. And it became the paper you would go to for any information about the epidemic.
You have to remember this was in the days before the Internet and the easy transmission of information. It had a circulation of about 12,000 at it’s peak, and many of those people were researchers at NIH trying to fir out what other researchers at Harvard, or what other clinicians were discovering at this hospital at Greenwich Village, and the only place to get that kind of information was the reporting that we were putting together at the New York Native.
I had only one science class at K, and I had to take it twice in order to pass it, and suddenly, there I am like science journalist interviewing bench researchers, trying to see if they immunizations offered any hope, and trying to share that information with others. We were trying to bridge divides that existed that had never been bridged before. And we were doing it all to get information to people with HIV who were trying to find a way to get better.
Was this the first time you had done anything with Journalism since working at The Index?
Yep. I would like to say I had any skill at all when I was working at the Index, but I did not. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t understand journalism. Journalism is three things, really. It’s how you tell a story, how you get a story, and then how you decide what a story is. And I had the third part. I knew that I needed to get this information, but I didn’t know how to go about getting it, and I didn’t know what to do with it when I got it. So all that stuff I really fumbled in. It took me a good couple years until what I was writing was both useful and reliable and timely. I was just trying to go where other people couldn’t go, or hadn’t thought to go. It took a number of years before larger newspapers started covering these things, and I moved to larger platforms when those platforms became available. I moved from the Voice to the dailies and started covering first for News Day, and then The New York Times.
Did you always know that you wanted to go back and do a larger project with that archive?
It wasn’t until a couple years went by, ten or twelve years, and I did a piece in 2008 that allowed me to go back and look at the older days of AIDS, and the response from readers surprised me, that they had no idea that it was such a challenge, and that politically, it was so scandalous and that it took such a vast movement of people to move the scientific establishment.
Somehow that had gotten lost in those few years when they stopped publishing about it, and I said, “Well we can’t let that stay lost.” And I realized at some point that– and this probably happens to everybody — that your own story becomes ancient history. That’s how it seems to me. This thing that I thought everybody felt and knew and remembered vividly was now ancient history, and it needed resurrection.
You seem to be good at following your conscience down the less travelled path. Do you have any advice for current K students who are looking at the economy and feeling the need to play it safe in terms of post-grad plans?
I’m glad I’m not trying to understand my role in the economy for the first time today — so dicey. But, I can say that if storytelling is your interest, that the thing to lead with is your own curiosity, and that’s what finds the subjects that are going to be interesting to other people. Just dive in and do it, and let the world respond to it.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The film is dedicated to Doug Gould, and he’s also from K, and he was my lover who died in 1992, and he didn’t finish school. He may have only lasted a year. While we were still in school, his boyfriend was my roommate, then he died. There was just so much death. We started the first gay student group on campus. We called it the Gay and Lesbian Support Group. I was the gay, and Laurie Ayre was the lesbian, and Katrina Van Valkenburgh, who had been my girlfriend, she was our support. It was a dangerous time, you know, we had to meet off campus. There were threats, there were constant threats of violence and it was a weird time. It’s hard to remember, I mean, it’s hard to convey to people who only know what it’s like today. I wrote an article for the Index about what it was like to be gay at K, and I was not gay at the time, or at least that was my position, and so I just interviewed my friends, but everyone had a pseudonym. You had to use pseudonyms then, or you’d get into trouble. I think that was the first thing I wrote. (Oct. 23, 1980 p. 1).