01/30/2013 05:59 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2013

David France, Oscar-Nominated Director Of 'How To Survive A Plague,' Says Gay Equality Started With AIDS

The Oscar-nominated documentary "How to Survive a Plague" is the movie David France was born to make. He was the first journalist to write about ACT UP, the chaotic yet fiercely effective New York-based group that forced the U.S. government to get serious about finding an effective treatment against AIDS. But France didn't just report on the crusade -- he lived it, attending every ACT UP meeting, his anxious face appearing again and again in the footage an older France would assiduously collect all these years later. The story France tells has ramifications far beyond the place and time where the action takes place -- for American drug policy, global health, and gay culture (which, in France's view, may not be sufficiently appreciative of its own history). The Huffington Post caught up with France at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered a year ago.

The Huffington Post: In the documentary "Public Speaking," Fran Lebowitz says all the coolest people in New York died in the AIDS crisis, because they were the ones having the most sex.

David France: What she said, if I remember properly, was a little more specific than that. She was talking about dance and she said, Not only did we lose the dancers and the choreographers, but we lost the audience. The balletomanes, the opera queens, the people who knew the difference between a perfect performance and a slightly less-than-perfect performance -- that is what she is saying we lost. It was a very interesting observation.

As well as a little bit of an insult to those who survived, and one surprising thing about your film is how many of the main characters do make it through. Yet you hold back on letting us know which ones survived -- did you ever debate the wisdom of that tactic?

Never. When I first started talking about this film, I described it as a medical thriller. That is the way I experienced AIDS, so I thought that was the way to convince people of what it was really like back then.

Were you a member of ACT UP?

No. I attended almost every meeting but I never voted, because I was there as an independent observer. I was the first person to write about ACT UP, to report on them. I started in community gay newspapers and ultimately I was reporting on AIDS science on the New York Times Science section, and then I went to Newsweek and covered it there. So I kept that idea of being an independent observer.

Like Bill Cunningham declining a cup of coffee at the society ball.

Exactly. That was me. You see me in the footage -- I am in the background -- and I discovered something about myself back then: I was absolutely terrified. I never sat down, I was always in the back of the room, always writing furiously and never looking up. I was just trying to find the answer.

What's the biggest misconception about the AIDS crisis among people you meet?

For anybody under 40, I think they know that there was some sort of activism -- people know ACT UP existed -- but they don't know what that activism did. Most people think the system took care of itself, without knowing how totally broken the system was. The first thing the men and women that I followed for How To Survive A Plague did was try and fix the system, and that is their legacy: they were directly involved with finding the drugs, and now 8 million people around the world are alive because of them. They changed everything about how medicine is practiced and science is undertaken and the regulatory process and the drug-release process work -- all of that is a creation in this period.

Somebody said "How to Survive a Plague" is the least depressing AIDS film ever, and it does show that there are ways in which our society would be worse off had it not been for this crisis and this response. Is that fair?

It is utterly fair. A lot of good came out of AIDS. You would not want to wish it on anybody, but there was revolutionary change. Modern-day gay-and-lesbian rights rose from the ashes of those tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Right after I watched the film, I caught an episode of "Girls" and thought, This whole gay-roommate subplot would not have been possible 30 years ago.

No. In 1987, when my movie begins, there were no gay people in public life. None. Well, Barney Frank had just come out, because somebody was chasing him out. But there were no gay journalists. The New York Post fired me for being gay. There were no gay people on television that we knew of. We did not have gay rights except in a couple of cities like in West Hollywood. We were nowhere in 1987, and the past 25 years have probably been the most culturally transformative the nation has ever experienced.

What do you think the next 25 years will bring in term of gay rights?

I don't know. The sights are not set terribly high. Marriage and military -- they are not earth-changing events. I think this is maybe it. Maybe integration is what happens. It is really interesting just to see this happen in your own lifetime. We were outlaws, we were illegal, our sexual conduct was illegal in most every state in the country in 1987. And now to gay people are on almost every channel, and anybody in college today just can't really wrap their minds around the fact that it wasn't always like this. They go, "But why wouldn't it always be like this?" And their parents don't know what to say to them. "Well, we were afraid."

Do you think gay culture has become a little bit complacent in recent years?

It's hard to blame the community for integrating. What I would like to blame the community for is for pretending that AIDS is no longer its issue. In today's society, the majority of new infections are still among among men who have sex with men. It is a gay epidemic.

It's reasonable to expect that we'll be commemorating the life of President George H.W. Bush in the near future. What's one fact you hope Americans will keep in mind when that happens?

The main thing is, in 1981, there were 41 cases of AIDS. It could have been contained. It would have taken a massive public-health undertaking to contain it, but nobody did anything, and today there are 78 million cases of AIDS. Forty million dead from AIDS -- that is their legacy.

"How to Survive a Plague" comes to DVD on Feb. 26.