09/27/2012 10:37 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2016

David France's How to Survive a Plague Reveals How 6 Million Lived Through the AIDS Epidemic

The archival-based documentary How To Survive a Plague offers a rousing portrait of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Directed by renowned journalist David France, the film manages to be moving, disquieting and gratifying all at once.

How to Survive captures the vibrancy and fearlessness of those who fought for life-saving drugs that ultimately saved 6 million people. It uses footage from 1986 up until the present to piece together a valuable chronology of AIDS activism and how it led to the development of such medications as AZT and 3TC.

France has been writing about the virus since 1981, a time when few journalists were tackling the subject. A former Newsweek editor, his work has appeared in such outlets as GQ, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair. His 2004 book, Our Fathers, was the basis for a 2006 Showtime documentary of the same name. How to Survive marks his directorial debut.

France spoke about his decision to bring the story to the screen, the poor state of AIDS activism today, and finding humor in one of the most horrific periods in human history.

You've written award winning articles and three ground-breaking books. When you set out to tell the story of the AIDS epidemic, what made you decide to do so through film?

I've been interested in going back and looking at those years of the plague in America and to try and find out the larger lesson and the takeaway message from that period. Most of the literature about the epidemic in this country was produced in the middle of it -- before 1996 when the new drug compound came out that made it possible to survive the disease. There are witness accounts about this terrible new, mysterious illness and the tragedy that it wrought.

When I looked back, I realized that there was more to the story than that. It was that flush of what a community did to the virus -- not just what the virus did to the community. I came to that realization when I went back to look at the video footage to refresh my memory of what those years were like.

It became very clear to me that the story was in that footage and that part of the story was how the community not only did what it did but that it documented itself doing it at the same time. It was also about a period of tremendous triumph.

You were one of the first journalists to write about AIDS and you've continued to write about the virus. AIDS is clearly a subject that you're very familiar with. What did you learn about the subject from working on How to Survive Plague?

I learned what the power of that (kind of) grassroots activism really was. I asked myself the question at first: "How did it come to be that we survived the epidemic?" I was really impressed with how I couldn't tell this story without telling the story of individuals and activists along the way.

With AIDS no longer being an automatic death sentence, AIDS activism and the sense of urgency to find a cure has died down. What do you think it will take to ignite the fervor towards AIDS related issued that was dominant in the '80s and '90s.

I think it has died down some. The thousands of people that you see in How to Survive a Plague -- many of them went back to their own lives having made survival possible and having left this incredible legacy for the rest of us. What we failed to do -- I think -- is to take it to the next level and the next level is the challenges that are made possible by the arrival of these drugs. AIDS is survivable but not everybody is surviving from it. (According to a 2010 report released by UNICEF, roughly 34 million people are living with HIV/AIDS worldwide.) So, how do you make that possible? How do you get the treatments to the people who need them?

That hasn't really been addressed as a grassroots issue. It hasn't been addressed by our generation but it could be -- and if it were, that could really make a difference.

What we see in the film is a solution that rescues 6 million lives. It could take that and expand that to include an additional 28 million people with HIV today who have no access to the drugs because they live in parts of the world where even a $1 a day puts the drugs out of reach for them.

How To Survive made its debut at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was screened as part of the New Directors Series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. How have audiences reacted to the film? Do you think that some will be inspired to get involved with AIDS activism?

I do. What I've discovered with audiences in the festival circuit is that people just didn't know. They didn't know that what happened with AIDS was this brilliant social justice movement that profoundly transformed the health care system that most of us are benefiting from today. They didn't know that activism could be as effective as it was then. They didn't know that the pharmaceutical industry didn't just wind its way into producing these drugs -- that it took all that action to get there.

The audience is kind of thrilled by [this new information]. They're energized and motivated to see what they can do. One audience member described their reaction as jealousy -- which I thought was fascinating. They asked, "How could we not have lived through this incredible Technicolor time in American history? How did we miss that?"

There was a thrilling aspect to what was happening on the ground in the community at that time -- despite the real tragedy that was expanding around us with the ballooning epidemic.

One after another, audience members have been asking, "What can I do?" and I'm thrilled by that. I don't necessarily have an answer because I'm not the activist. I'm the storyteller -- but there are answers to that question and we're making sure that -- when we can -- we have somebody on the ground at the theaters [where the film is playing] saying, "This is what we're doing, you can join us."

In a previous interview, you mentioned that you cut out a moment in the film where someone who lived through the epidemic said, "We had so much fun while everyone was dying." That really encompasses the tone of the film, which plays like a comedy at times. How did you manage to incorporate humor into a film about something so tragic?

I'm glad you point out the humor in the film because it was impossible to cut around that. Among these incredible tools that these activists brought to their undertaking was humor and ridicule and sex appeal. Somebody once said to me, "We sold AIDS activism as though it were Madonna." It was marketed with all of the excitement that that entails. The time period was rich with that and there's no way to tell the story without it.

It's a story of human triumph and despite the events that triggered the action -- the action itself is so brilliant, so revolutionary, and so effective that just knowing about it is inspiring.

[Incorporating the humor] wasn't craft. It was just there. It was history.

In the film, you profile such notable AIDS activists as Peter Staley and the late Bob Rafsky. Why did you choose to focus on the individuals that you did?

My challenge was telling the story of how we got to this drug and that's the story of these individuals and their direct involvement. We see them right from 1987, when the film opens, beginning their activism and realizing that what they had to do was understand the language of the science that was being practiced or not practiced around them and we see them undertake this incredible self-education campaign and become experts in the disease. Those people essentially became citizen scientists -- their narrative needed to be included when telling the story of how we got to 1996 and those life-saving drugs.