SAN FRANCISCO — Gilead’s new once-daily AIDS drug Stribild provides an attractive option for those with HIV who have never started a meds regiment before, but activists say the $33,000 a year price-tag will make it unattainable for most who need it.
Also nominated in the documentary category was Kirby Dick, straight director of “The Invisible War.” Dick directed the 2009 film “Outrage,” which examined outing public figures. Gay screenwriter Tony Kushner, who penned “Angels in America” was nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for “Lincoln,” and gay writer/director Chris Butler’s ParaNorman, which features Mitch — considered the first young openly gay character in a children’s animated film — was nominated for Best Animated Feature.
Peter Staley in a scene from ‘How to Survive a Plague.’ (photo by William Lucas Walker courtesy Sundance Selects)
The Johns Hopkins’ Center for AIDS Research and the Baltimore Student Harm Reduction Coalition will present the critically acclaimed documentary “How to Survive a Plague” with a Q&A session with the film’s Oscar-nominated director, David France, to follow on Jan. 29.
The event, which is free and open to the public, takes place at 5 p.m. at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Becton-Dickinson Auditorium, 615 N. Wolfe St. in Baltimore. A light reception will take place at 7:45 p.m.
“How to Survive a Plague” is a 2013 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature. The film, using never-before-seen archival footage from the 1980s and ’90s, focuses on the coalition of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) consisting of young people, many of them HIV-positive young men, who took on Washington and the medical establishment.
Ed Koch (Photo by Boss Tweed via Wikimedia Commons)
Former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, who has been credited with rescuing his city from near financial ruin while also being condemned by gay and AIDS activists for failing to adequately address the AIDS epidemic, died on Friday of congestive heart failure at a New York hospital. He was 88.
Known for his bluntness and New York style “chutzpah,” Koch served three terms as mayor, from 1978 to 1989, winning re-election by overwhelming margins while brushing off and later denying repeated rumors that he was a closeted gay man.
Before becoming mayor, Koch, a Democrat, served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1968 to 1977, representing a district that included Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. In 1975, he and then U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) co-introduced a sweeping gay rights bill, the first such bill to be introduced in Congress.
The bill called for banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations. Like the less ambitious Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, introduced years later that covers only LGBT-related employment discrimination, the Abzug-Koch bill died in committee.
Shortly after taking office as mayor, Koch issued an executive order prohibiting job related discrimination in city government agencies based on sexual orientation.
Although he remained a gay rights supporter throughout his three terms as mayor, Koch alienated a large part of the LGBT community by what gay and AIDS activists have said was a failure to take adequate steps to address AIDS as it wreaked havoc on gay men and others in New York in the early 1980s.
New York gay journalist, TV commentator and LGBT rights advocate Andy Humm said many gays believe Koch’s status as a closeted gay man made him uncomfortable dealing with a disease that at first appeared to be impacting gay men more than any other group.
“It happens that I’m heterosexual, but I don’t care,” Koch said in a 1989 radio interview. “I happen to believe there is nothing wrong with homosexuality. It’s whatever God made you…I do care about protecting the rights of 10 percent of our population who are homosexual and who don’t have the ability to protect their rights,” he said.
“He was probably one of the most famous closet cases of all times,” Humm told the Blade.
Humm and others familiar with Koch’s record as mayor have said most LGBT activists in New York were far more concerned about Koch’s response to the early AIDS epidemic than they were about his sexual orientation.
New York gay rights attorney Bill Dobbs said that Koch’s sluggish response to AIDS prompted many in the gay community, who supported Koch on other issues, into becoming more strident and even radicalized on AIDS matters.
“In a strange way there was a silver lining that came from his lack of response,” Dobbs told the Blade. “His poor response on AIDS triggered greater activism and the creation of ACT UP.”
Among those responding were gay author and playwright Larry Kramer, one of the founders of ACT UP, the direct action AIDS group that engaged in sit-ins and protests across the country, including in New York.
In his now internationally acclaimed play about AIDS, “The Normal Heart,” Kramer’s characters refer to what they claim was the unresponsiveness of the Koch administration in the early 1980s as they struggled to create a community organization to help gay men dying of AIDS.
The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the organization that Kramer also helped to found in real life and in which his play depicts on stage, became the first of many community-based AIDS service groups to spring up across the country.
In an email exchange on Friday, the Blade asked Kramer if he thought Koch supporters had some merit in saying that Koch faced budget and funding constraints and did what he could in the early days of the epidemic to provide some city resources to address AIDS.
“Bullshit,” replied Kramer. “Evil deeds are evil deeds.”
D.C. gay activist Peter Rosenstein, who lived in New York and worked in politics at the time Koch first won election as mayor, said he supported Abzug over Koch in the hotly contested 1977 Democratic mayoral primary. In the run-off between Koch and Mario Cuomo, who later became New York’s governor, Rosenstein said he backed Cuomo.
“Ed Koch was an enigma,” said Rosenstein. “He was an egomaniac, brash and a bully. He did some good things but was horrendous when it came to dealing with HIV/AIDS.”
Many New York political observers, however, say Koch’s overall record as mayor is considered positive for the city and most of its residents. They note that his transformation from a liberal reform politician in the 1960s and 1970s into a moderate and, on some issues, a conservative Democrat when he ran for mayor alienated many liberals, who accused him of betraying the progressive cause. When he ran for his third term as mayor, he won the nomination of both the Democratic and Republican Party in New York.
“By the usual standards measuring a former mayor’s legacy – the city he inherited, the challenges he faced, the resources available to meet those challenges and the extent to which his work endured beyond his term – historians and political experts generally give Mr. Koch mixed-to-good reviews,” the New York Times said in its obituary on Koch.
“Most important, he is credited with leading the city government back from near bankruptcy in the 1970s to prosperity in the 1980s,” the Times obituary says. “He also began one of the city’s most ambitious housing programs, which continued after he left office and eventually built or rehabilitated more than 200,000 housing units, revitalizing once-forlorn neighborhoods.”
A scene from David France’s harrowing documentary ‘How to Survive a Plague.’ The film has its Oscar rendezvous Sunday night at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood where its up for Best Documentary. (Photo courtesy Sundance Selects)
It sounds so straightforward — the New York Public Library had a collection of videotapes AIDS activists made decades ago with vintage camcorders back when they were heavy behemoths you had to rest on your shoulder with full-size VHS or Beta tapes inside. Filmmaker/journalist David France combed painstakingly through the clips to compose his powerful 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague.”
But how this was achieved — what format was the footage stored in? What condition was it in? Could anyone go in and check these out with a library card? How did France pull this off?
In some ways, it’s the least interesting part of the film’s story, which is told via a sobering chronology of video footage shot by angry protesters — the kind the Religious Right calls “militant homosexual activists.”
For “Plauge,” France took footage — some of which was housed at the New York Public Library — shot by 31 videographers and paces it chronologically to the story of the formation of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a group that formed in March 1987 in a spirit of extreme frustration during a speech activist (and “Normal Heart” playwright) Larry Kramer gave at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York.
France, during a lengthy phone interview last weekend before he was scheduled to fly to Los Angeles on Tuesday, gladly shares the logistics behind “Plague’s” formation.
A veteran investigative journalist, author and GLAAD Media Award winner (for a GQ piece on gays in Iraq) who’s had his work published in everything from the New Yorker to Ladies’ Home Journal, France says he was a graduate student during the time AIDS hit in the early 1980s and having written about it extensively over the years, he knew activists had brought cameras to their protests. And yes, the process of crafting “Plague” was a lot more involved than simply checking tapes out of the library.
“The tapes from the library are actually just a small portion of the footage you see in the film,” France, who’s gay, says. “That’s really the first door I went through, this archive of AIDS activism video that’s housed in the Manuscript Division of the New York Library, where you go if you want to read Lincoln’s letters. It’s an exclusive corner of the library that’s not accessible to the general public and everybody’s going around wearing white gloves and handling antiquities. In one corner, they have a television and a VCR and you watch the AIDS footage recorded in those early days. It’s just raw footage, not really ever intended for public view. Some of it you’ll be watching and all of a sudden it will go to a gay porn video, which just happened to be on the same tape they recorded on.”
France says the library kept all the tapes — recorded in every home video format on the market in those years as one might imagine — but had transferred them all to the Betacam SP format, a higher resolution tape on larger cassettes that for years was the broadcast standard and is still in use today. France convinced the library to let him take select footage to a nearby production lab and have it digitized. He ended up with about 100 hours and says the process became difficult as the project moved along.
“They’re really not accustomed to working on a film production schedule, so trying to get them to hurry got more and more difficult as we went along,” he says.
And that was just the starting point — in the library footage, France saw other people holding video cameras. He started tracking them down one by one and eventually found a group of people, many long-time AIDS survivors themselves, who had videotape footage they had never revisited. Again, formats remained a challenge.
“We had all this stuff in so many different formats from private collections,” he says. “We were constantly scouring Craigslist and eBay for decks that would play these old tapes. We ended up with about 800 hours and that really became the building blocks of the film.”
And yes, France says it did take some persuasion to get these individuals to hand over their footage.
France says, “A lot of these people had moved on but I think now have started to see the real value in this footage. I think they gradually started to realize, that yes, enough time has passed and now is the time to really use it and this is the project.”
France said his project is timely and important because many of the other landmark AIDS pieces, from Kramer’s play to Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On” were written before the era of anti-retroviral therapy when HIV morphed into a more manageable condition.
He says the film is important for anyone interested in the AIDS fight to see.
“There were even people in ACT UP who didn’t know the outcomes of many of these things,” he says. “If you think you know the story of AIDS, this film will surprise you and that goes for just about everybody.”
WASHINGTON BLADE: Will this be your first time at the Academy Awards?
DAVID FRANCE: Yes. I’ve never gotten any closer before than my television screen.
BLADE: Have you watched very often over the years?
FRANCE: Oh yeah. My boyfriend and I always have an Oscar party. With ballots and everything. I’ve never won.
BLADE: What’s your favorite Oscar memory?
FRANCE: Tom Hanks’ acceptance speech when he won for “Philadelphia.” That’s really seared in my memory.
BLADE: What did you think of Michael Moore’s controversial speech when he won the category you’re up for? Ballsy or inappropriate for the occasion?
FRANCE: I think if you’ve got an audience of a billion people and you’ve got something to say, you need to say it. That’s not to say I’m intending any surprises should I have that opportunity.
BLADE: Have you seen the competition?
FRANCE: Of course. They’re all brilliant films.
BLADE: If you win, where will you put Oscar?
FRANCE? I’m not sure. I keep the other awards we’ve won in the production office so everyone on the crew can enjoy them and hopefully see their own contribution but if we get this little gold thing, I’m not sure. I have no idea.
BLADE: Do you feel AIDS, as horrible as it was and is, put gay issues on the national radar and that ended up being a silver lining to the cloud or is that an absurd oversimplification?
FRANCE? No, it’s absolutely true. Before that, gay people were entirely disenfranchised and we were not seen as being contributing members to the culture at all. We had no role whatsoever in civic life … From those ashes (of AIDS), now we have a president who acknowledges us as human beings and Stonewall is mentioned in the same breath as Seneca Falls.
BLADE: How did you feel when Dustin Lance Black won for “Milk”?
FRANCE: I felt it was incredible. He gave a great speech and I thought it was a very, very good movie.
BLADE: Did you plan all along to submit it for a nomination? What’s the process like?
FRANCE: There are all kinds of rules about it playing in New York and L.A. and being reviewed by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and that’s just the first threshold. I was lucky I had a distributor who saw the potential for the film early on and made sure we did everything we needed to do for both the Oscars and the Independent Spirit Awards. … Anytime you make a film, sure, you fantasize about getting an Oscar nomination and it’s really just because you want more people to see it. An Oscar bump is a tremendous thing.
NEW YORK — Last appearing in the documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” and best known for his work with ACT UP, outspoken AIDS activist Spencer Cox died Tuesday of complications from AIDS. He was 44.
At just 20 years old, Cox became one of the spokespeople for ACT UP in 1989, according to “How to Survive a Plague” producer/director David France, first as a member of the Treatment and Data Committee, and later as the founder of the Treatment Action Group. Cox’s research was sought out by scientists and his proposed drug trial protocol was adopted by the pharmaceutical industry in 1995 during early testing of protease inhibitors.
“Spencer single-handedly sped up the development and marketing of the protease inhibitors, which currently are saving 8 million lives,” said TAG executive director Mark Harrington. “He was absolutely brilliant, just off the charts brilliant.”