"It was a true witness-bearing," said France, who spent two years cutting the film. "You also see in those scenes how comfortable people were on camera because the cameras were always present, which was only made possible by a true revolution in home video. They were not these tiny, handheld things but for the first time it was affordable to ordinary people to record things in that way. The camcorder came out in 1982, you had HIV in 1981 and by 1987 those tools were being used broadly."
As in "5 Broken Cameras," France wanted to tell a story that was free of partisanship.
"What we were reaching for in 'How to Survive a Plague' was to allow somebody who had no knowledge of this time and this movement to have the experience we had when it was happening, to really not know the outcome, to not know from day to day and scene to scene who was going to live and who was not going to live," France said. "Would we get there in time? We realized in the course of editing it that this was a real-life medical thriller."
AJ Schnack, founder of the Cinema Eye Honors for nonfiction filmmaking where both of these movies were recent winners — "5 Broken Cameras" took the top prize, while "Plague" won for its editing — views this approach as an extension of the kind of long-form investigative journalism that television networks don't do as much of anymore. By comparison, he said, a provocateur like Michael Moore is tantamount to an opinion page writer.
"(Davidi) has the task of taking not only footage from his narrator/co-director/subject but also footage that other people shot at that time and still making it feel like a first-person account. I think that's one of the things that's a success in that film, is that it feels constantly like it's Emad's voice and camera but it's the culmination of a bunch of different people shooting," said Schnack, whose films include "Kurt Cobain About a Son." "'How to Survive a Plague' is somewhat similar in that he's taking the video from a number of sources at the time and trying to craft a narrative that feels fairly singular — that's why the editor remains the most important person in the documentary in some ways.
"In the case of both films," he added, "both become successful if they tell you something new about something you think you know."
Contact Christy Lemire through Twitter: http://twitter.com/christylemire