‘How to Survive a Pandemic’ Director David France: ‘I Despaired for America’ When COVID Swept the CountryMarch 11, 2022
From the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker David France (“How to Survive a Plague”) could sense the scale of the threat looming on the horizon. A long-time health reporter who has spent decades documenting the battle against HIV and AIDS, he also knew that it would be up to science to lead the world from the brink of an unprecedented human catastrophe.
The race to develop and rollout a COVID-19 vaccine has been the defining story of recent memory, and it was the director’s need to document “the great unseen work” performed in laboratories across the world that led to his latest feature, “How to Survive a Pandemic.” “This is the largest scientific undertaking of our lifetimes,” France tells Variety, “and it deserved to be chronicled.”
“How to Survive a Pandemic,” which world premieres this week at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the world’s response to COVID-19 told through the eyes of leading scientists, lawmakers, activists, healthcare workers, and everyday figures on the pandemic’s frontlines. An HBO documentary produced by Public Square Films in association with Impact Partners and Sandbox Films, the film is written and directed by France and produced by Mira Chang, and will debut in the U.S. on HBO and HBO Max.
An aspiring reporter from Kalamazoo, Michigan, France moved to New York City in 1981, where he began covering the fight against HIV and AIDS, an epidemic whose early years he chronicled in his Academy Award-nominated 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague.” The relationships he cultivated among scientists and health administration officials – many of whom would become key figures in the race for a coronavirus vaccine – led to the unprecedented access he was granted to make his latest film.
Shot across five continents, “How to Survive a Pandemic” features some of the global science community’s leading figures, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the face of the coronavirus response in the U.S.; Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, co-developer of the Moderna vaccine at the U.S. National Institutes of Health; Dr. Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer; World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; and Dr. Glenda Gray, president and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council, and a driving force behind South Africa’s COVID-19 response.
France began filming within weeks of the March 2020 lockdown. (“I never went through the sourdough bread phrase,” he says, laughing.) One of the first people he contacted, Science Magazine reporter Jon Cohen, is a long-standing expert in the fields of immunology and vaccinology who worked alongside France while reporting on the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Cohen agreed to consult on the film, then somewhat reluctantly came on board to play a central role in front of the camera, which follows his real-time efforts to cover a rapidly evolving global health crisis.
The remarkable speed with which several highly effective COVID-19 vaccines were developed represents “the pinnacle of scientific achievement,” says France, even as its unequal distribution across the globe represents what one journalist in the film calls a “catastrophic moral failure.” “The vaccines turned out to be such runaway successes, and we knew that the scientific challenge had been addressed,” says the director. “What remained was this story of political will. And that’s where the whole response to the pandemic took a turn that was unexpected.”
Enter former President Donald J. Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and a coterie of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and science skeptics who populate the second half of “How to Survive a Pandemic.” It was their widespread vaccine denialism and misinformation that the director says led to countless preventable deaths and represents “the biggest global challenge to preparing the world for the next plague.”
“There are so many people who have fallen victim to the pandemic who needn’t have,” he says, “if we had rolled out information accurately, if we had rolled out the resources of industrial America to manufacture the masks that we were going to need and the ventilators we were going to need. All those things didn’t happen. And we all watched it not happen.”
In an age of unreason, “How to Survive a Pandemic” presents a passionate defense of science, its heroes the “white-coated lab dwellers” who “were activists around the question of making sure that expertise is unhindered and unpolluted by politics,” says France. “They took on the weight of humanity on their shoulders. They knew that every moment counted.”
Cohen’s cogent, shoe-leather reporting also illustrates the critical role of journalism to cut through the fog of misinformation and “fake news” and to “sell faith in science to the world’s people,” says France. “That faith was essential and remains essential for the vaccination program. [Cohen’s work] represented that for me: holding science to account, lifting science up, shielding science from fake news and conspiracy theory.”
As the U.S. commemorates the second anniversary of the first, sweeping lockdowns that took hold in the spring of 2020, the director admits he “despaired for America when COVID first washed across the country.” The political leadership in a volatile election year was “chaotic,” and a series of police killings of unarmed black men and women exposed systemic inequalities that would make a coordinated response to the coronavirus pandemic even harder to achieve.
It was the Black Lives Matter movement, and its sustained efforts to highlight and combat that inequality in America, that gave France hope that “it would be possible to rebuild around a model that recognizes the errors that allowed this virus to be so deadly in its march across the country.
“People are demanding that we address those problems, those errors, those failures, and build back better, to use a phrase that has been co-opted by the current administration,” he continues. “That goal is a shared goal, and I feel hopeful that we might be able to get there.”
France is nevertheless clear-eyed about the monumental challenge that lies ahead. “We have failed politically in the area of public health and that failure, if it’s unaddressed, certainly that failure will go down in history as being the central failure of our response…to this threat,” he says. “If we don’t resolve that problem, if we don’t remove nationalism, and if we don’t remove greed, if we don’t remove these national borders around our response to a virus that recognizes no national borders, then we are condemned to the same outcome every time.”
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