Oscar-nominated director says Kalamazoo has gone from hostile toward gay community to a model of acceptance
“I think Kalamazoo is now a model for how a community can turn around and go from one extreme to full acceptance,” he said.
If you go
“How To Survive A Plague”
About: Screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary from director and Kalamazoo College graduate David France, who will host a Q&A following the film.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, May 5
Where: Kalamazoo College’s Dalton Theatre, 1200 Academy St.
KALAMAZOO, MI — When David France founded the first gay and lesbian support group at Kalamazoo College in 1980, the members met in secret locations for their own security.
Before France went on to become a decorated journalist and the director of the Oscar-nominated documentary, “How to Survive a Plague,” the Grand Rapids native and K-College graduate struggled with Kalamazoo’s “hostile” attitude toward the gay community. During a phone interview from his home in New York, France said he was assaulted twice in Kalamazoo, once in the city and another time on campus.
France, 54, will return to Kalamazoo College at 7 p.m. Sunday to screen his acclaimed film about the AIDS/HIV movement of the 1980s and ’90s. He will also participate in a Q&A following the movie. The event is free and open to the public. It’s his first time on campus since 2001 and France said he’s impressed with the strides Kalamazoo has made in the years since he left.
“The city itself was a place where it was dangerous to walk as a gay person in the streets of most neighborhoods, many neighborhoods, in Kalamazoo, and even dangerous at times on campus. There were repeated acts of violence. There wasn’t the consciousness among the administration and the school, and the city itself, for how to counter that or what to do to change that kind of culture. It’s taken a concerted effort over the last couple decades, but it’s really paid off. I think Kalamazoo is now a model for how a community can turn around and go from one extreme to full acceptance,” he said.
France graduated from Forest Hills Northern High School in Grand Rapids, where his father, Jerry, still lives. He graduated from Kalamazoo College in 1981 and moved to New York to pursue a doctorate in philosophy from the New School for Social Research.
He ended up leaving school to cover the AIDS/HIV epidemic. He became a contributing editor to New York magazine and was a senior editor at Newsweek. His articles have also appeared in some of the nation’s most prominent publications, including the New York Times and Rolling Stone. He’s also considered an authority on the work done by groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, that paved a path for the modern gay and lesbian rights movement.
“It’s really remarkable to think how things have changed so rapidly in such a short period of time,” France said. “A lot of that was built on the ashes of the dead of AIDS. The AIDS movement that took foot during the mid-’80s to counter the epidemic and to try to survive through those times became the foundation for the modern gay and lesbian rights movement. If it weren’t for what organizations like ACT UP did in the ’80s and ’90s, we would not be awaiting two momentous Supreme Court decisions on marriage today. We really owe that to the activism that was on the ground and frantically trying to find the solution to AIDS.”
France emphasized the importance of the fight against AIDS still going on today, although it’s rarely discussed in the media. There are 55,000 new cases of HIV transmission every year in the United States, he said.
“That’s nuts and a majority of those transmissions are among people in the age group 13 to 24. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed very actively in an activist’s way by young people. And it’s not quite yet, at least not in an effective way. I’d love to see college students taking that issue up and trying to find a way to once and for all innovate a prevention message,” he said.
“How To Survive A Plague” was France’s first foray into filmmaking. It garnered strong reviews and earned France a ticket to the Academy Awards where he posed for a group photo alongside Sally Field and Anne Hathaway. France said intended to use his reporting on the AIDS movement to write a book, but the rapidly declining publishing environment of 2009 made him reconsider.
“I wouldn’t have gone to make a documentary if I had been fully engaged in my magazine work. I just had time to try it and to learn about it. It’s always something I wanted to do, but I was trying to write a book about that piece of history at a time, 2009, when the entire publishing industry was collapsing,” he said. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try something new.’ I’m glad I did. It was really fun. No book is going to get me to the Oscars. It bit me. I’ve got the bug. I’ll do it again. I’m a filmmaker now.”
He’s also dabbling in television. ABC plans to remake the documentary as a TV mini series, he said. France said the project is in “full development mode.” He said he will serve as the writer and executive producer.
“We are pushing straight forward on it. I don’t know really what the timeline is on this because I haven’t done it before, but I imagine it will be a year or a year-and-a-half at the earliest that we can get the thing on television,” he said.
Once his “detour” into television completes, France said he plans to pursue another documentary project.
“In a poor economy, entrepreneurship is the way to go. So try new things and see. I think that’s what we learn from the young men and women in ‘How To Survive A Plague.’ You can do anything. You can learn immunology. You can learn documentary filmmaking. You’ve just got to commit to it and you can master it,” he said.