Meet the Filmmaker: David France

This post is part of Benevolent Media's ongoing coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. For more information, read "The Benevolent Guide to the Sundance Film Fesitval."

When journalist-turned-filmmaker David France set out to make a documentary about the early days of the HIV/AIDS activist movement, he didn’t intend to start a movement himself.

“I’m a journalist, not a social change agent,” he says during a quick chat in between screenings and panels at this week’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where his film, “How to Survive a Plague,” made its debut last year.

Over the past 12 months, the film has made waves in both the film and public health communities. Last week, it was nominated for Best Documentary at the 85th Academy Awards. Back at Sundance, where he made his directorial debut, France reflects on the intersection between filmmaking and social change.

France said he has spent his career avoiding becoming an activist, to remain the “objective observer,” endowed with a certain power to convey messages through narrative storytelling.

“How to Survive a Plague” tells the story of two activist coalitions, ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), who brought the AIDS crisis into the national spotlight in the late-1980s and eventually convinced the federal government to approve affordable life-saving drugs.

“I never crossed the line from chronicling what they were doing to doing something myself,” France reiterates.

But “How to Survive a Plague” has no doubt re-energized a media-fueled movement to fight for health justice. Part of the reason is that one-third of the film’s budget was funded by Ford Foundation, with a grant specifically set aside for outreach and engagement campaigns.

After the film was released, France turned to media consultant Patricia Finneran, to strategize on how to bridge the gap between the film and the grassroots movement to end AIDS.

First, the film partnered with three national AIDS organizations - Student Global AIDS Campaign, Black AIDS Institute and Health Global Access Project (GAP) - asking their leaders: What do you want from this? How can you use this film to benefit your mission? The organizations agreed that they would send on-the-ground advocates to attend the public screenings, giving audience members a chance to ask questions and get involved in the cause.

The film also expanded its list of stakeholders, collectively organizing more than 70 screenings across the country during Worlds AIDS Day on December 1, which gave the film “lift-off,” France says.

There’s also a website, complete with calls-to-action on how to “learn about the issues,” “fight for health care justice,” and “connect with communities.”

“[Finneran] conceived of it as a wormhole,” France says. “We didn’t want people to spend too much time on the website. Instead, we wanted it to be an interface with the people doing the actual work.”

As a result, many of the resources listed on the website link straight to the partner groups. France says he didn't want the online portal to become “space junk” in a couple years, with no one managing content or facilitating useful conversations. For him, it was better to link the users directly to the experts and take a hands-off approach.

Now, with the magic combination of engagement, distribution and acclaim, the film has received an Oscar nod, which means “the mainstream media becomes your outreach tool,” France says.

At the very least, the televised awards ceremony will feature 10 seconds of footage from the film, perhaps reaching an audience that otherwise wouldn’t have thought twice to pay attention.

We'll see if this year's Sundance docs can have the same effect.

Here are two worth watching about the AIDS crisis:

The Battle of amfAR (Shorts Competition)

"When AIDS strikes, two very different women—Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor and research scientist Dr. Mathilde Krim—join forces to create America’s first AIDS research foundation. The fight against HIV/AIDS has never been the same."

Fire in the Blood (World Documentary)

"Dylan Mohan Gray’s absorbing documentary uses the response to the AIDS crisis in Africa to reveal the power of the drug companies and the impact of their lobby on the federal government. The implications of their ability to effectively deny critical treatment based on economic inequities are more far reaching than any single disease."

FITB trailer 29nov12 from Fire in the Blood on Vimeo.