David France has a lot of people rooting for him. Supporting his debut film, the powerful documentary How to Survive a Plague (set for a Sept. 21 release), a host of celebrities—like Alan Cumming, John Cameron Mitchell, Heather Matarazzo, Ingrid Sischy and Jay Manuel—came out to the Angelika Film Center downtown for the screening this Wednesday. The guests were tied by a common denominator: most of them are strong advocates for LGBT rights, one of the dominant themes of the documentary.
Mr. Mitchell had already watched the film before the screening, and seemed to be one of its biggest fans. “I predict an Oscar nomination,” said the writer/actor/director. “I was just so moved by it. It is so empowering too, it is not a depressing document of tragedy—it is about people who made the drugs happen and saved an estimated 6 million people.”
Mr. France’s journalistic background strongly informed his approach to filmmaking; a potent narrative, well-investigated story and incisive editing capture the makings of a massive civil rights movement in ’80s New York—a revolution that could be seen as a precursor to movements like Occupy Wall Street in its ability to mobilize people in rage against the machine. Mr. France, an award-winning journalist and a New York Times best-selling author, is also a contributing editor at New York magazine (as well as a former Observer city reporter). He has been researching and reporting on AIDS for the better part of his career. “I was one of the first reporters to begin covering the epidemic when it first hit New York in 1981.”
A 2012 Sundance selection, the documentary, which is mostly based on archival footage, took Mr. France about three years to make. How to Survive a Plague documents the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s through the lens of members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) who endeavored to legalize certain drugs, affect required changes in policy, and demand more investment in AIDS research and dignity for homosexuals. The film takes us from the first ACT UP protest in 1987 to the mid-’90s when they finally hit upon a successful protease inhibitor to treat AIDS.
Mr. Cumming strolled in with an air of punk sophistication about him, wearing all black and thick-rimmed glasses. The British actor told The Observer about his new film coming out this December, a movie that loosely tied in with the theme of activism that was the order of the night. Directed by Travis Fine, Any Day Now is inspired by the true story of a gay couple’s struggle adopting a teenager with Down syndrome. “Actually the biggest thing about it, I suppose, is that 30 years on, nothing much has really changed for same-sex couples trying to adopt in the legal system. So it was actually very interesting to be able to have a really great role in a film about something I really believe in,” Cumming said.
Mr. Mitchell continued on about threats to the gay rights movement, citing presidential candidate Mitt Romney, but in the end he isn’t too worried. “Old people die.”
Mr. France’s engagement with the AIDS cause does not stop here; he is currently working on a book about the history of AIDS. It will be published by Alfred A. Knopf and is expected to be out by 2014. When asked about how work on that was coming along, France sighed, “There is a lot of work to do on it still, so I won’t be staying out late tonight.”