January 26, 2012
Before the HAART era, there was a time when many people in the U.S. considered an HIV diagnosis a guaranteed death sentence. Although countless researchers and doctors worked to develop treatments for the disease, their data usually weren't made accessible to the people who needed that life-saving information the most. Meanwhile, the established processes for getting new, more effective drugs to market took so long that many HIV-positive people died waiting for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve them.
Yet, instead of accepting the status quo, the tireless activists from AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and its spinoff group Treatment Action Group (TAG) took to the streets and made it known that silence would no longer equal death under their watch.
All of this (and much more) is the subject matter of the new documentary How to Survive a Plague. The film, directed by award-winning journalist and first-time filmmaker David France, captures this tireless (and often controversial) activism which in the end forever changed the development and approval process not just for HIV treatment, but for all urgently needed medicines in the U.S. The film mixes current interviews with vintage footage that makes the viewer privy to the good, the bad and the ugly of what it meant to be a member of these groups.
Prior to its 2012 Sundance Film Festival premiere in Park City, Utah, on Sunday, Jan. 22, tons of buzz surrounded the film. Salon.com's Andrew O'Heir and Indie Wire's senior editor Peter Knegt both called it one of the films they were most excited to see this year at the festival. Perhaps the many endorsements were the reason why the theater was packed on the film's opening night and why the film received two standing ovations -- one after the film and the other after the subsequent Q&A session. (Coincidentally, the debut marked the 20th anniversary of the formation of TAG.)
In an exclusive interview, France told TheBody.com that he made this film because he wanted to remind people that more than death came out of these dark times. "When people think about the [early days of] AIDS, they think about the terrible devastation, not the amazing work and heroics that occurred during that period," he said. "I wanted to tell the story about how it's not what the virus did to us, but what we as a community did to the virus."
He also hopes that his film will be a call to action for the next generation of AIDS activists. "HAART definitely helped more people survive HIV/AIDS, but not everyone is going to survive this disease," France said. "And so by resurrecting theses voices and showing that individuals can accomplish great things, this is an invitation for others to join [the fight]."
While Sundance is a big-time stage on which France can showcase his work to an eager audience, the festival also serves as an auction block for indie films to be bought by a main distributor. And so far the news seems promising: According to The Hollywood Reporter, there was "strong interest" in How to Survive a Plague, and several potential buyers attended screenings on Monday. France confirmed as much and said, "There are definitely people interested; we are just waiting to see how it all pans out."
France is also waiting to see if this Saturday night, the film will take home one of the festival's most coveted awards for its category, U.S. Documentary. He admitted, "We are pretty nervous and thrilled, but confident."
Watch an interview with David France:
Watch the Q&A session of the film's debut at Sundance:
On Jan. 29, the Sundance Awards Ceremony will be live online. Go to sundance.org for more details.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.
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