David France, an experienced and distinguished investigative reporter with a specific interest in issues relating to the LGBT community, turned to documentary filmmaking in 2012 with his first feature How To Survive a Plague. Welding together vast amounts of archive and research sources in a style France describes as “archival verité” to compile a visual history of the AIDS activism he’d been writing about since the earliest days of the crisis, his film provided a comprehensive, compelling document of the epidemic and those fighting for recognition and a response to it.
A similar style is used in France’s latest film, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, another intensely researched and deeply felt portrait that tells a similarly fraught and complex story. Marsha, a prominent personality in New York’s emergent late 60s transgender community and a key figure in the Stonewall Rebellion, died in 1992 in mysterious circumstances. Working with Victoria Cruz, a member of New York City’s Anti-Violence Project, an organization dedicated to investigating violence against LGBT communities, Frances initiates a reverse investigation, delving through archive material and producing new research to retroactively attempt to both to uncover the truth of Marsha’s death and the nuance of the life that came before it.
Fluidly weaving multiple narrative strands together, France selects and stitches moments from Marsha’s past to quickly establish a picture of her strength and warmth, and of the vitality of the work she undertook and the relationships she forged. Central is her partnership with another prominent activist, Sylvia Rivera, whose testimony frames the past side of the documentary, and establishes a context which moves the documentary forward into the present, drawing parallels between the marginalization of these two women and continual injustices directed towards transgender individuals in the history that would follow.
Cruz, alongside her work on Marsha’s death, introduces the viewer to a contemporary case in the murder of 21-year-old Islan Nettles, fully transporting France’s documentary out of history and into the present, demonstrating just one instance amongst a continuity of violence. What France’s film makes very clear is that Marsha’s death, ignored and unreported for some 25 years between its occurrence and the release of this documentary, is far from an isolated incident. Beside the legacy of her work to establish a rich, diverse and inclusive culture within her community is a continually expanding history of hidden violence that is worsened by the indifference towards acknowledging and addressing the problem from law enforcement, civic authorities and wider society.
David France talked us through his relationship with those featured in the film and his experiences working through the archives to discover, shape and share their stories.
NOTEBOOK: I wanted to ask first about the origin of the project, how you met those involved and how all the pieces came together?
DAVID FRANCE: I have always wanted to go back to the story of Marsha Johnson. I knew Marsha, she was one of the first people I met when I to moved to New York as a young gay man. She was a fixture in gay life then, an ambassador for the community and she welcomed me.
When she died in 1992, I was working as a crime reporter and I began to research what had happened with her case. It was very clear that the police had not investigated thoroughly, and maybe worse, had worked to cover up what happened with her death. But I never finished that bit of research. It was 1992, a turning point in the AIDS epidemic. I was also covering that, and I spent the rest of the year on that challenge, never returning to the story of Marsha Johnson. I realized that this year, 2017, is the 25th anniversary of her death. In 25 years, no one else had gone there.
NOTEBOOK: In film? Or in wider journalism as well?
FRANCE: In journalism as well. There was no follow up, even though she had become, over the following years, something of a mythological figure. People know her name. They attribute to her all sorts of central and pivotal contributions in the LGBT movement, but no one really knew her. No one had recorded for the generations ahead, for posterity and for history, what the significance of her life was. Nor had anyone gone back and investigated the case. So I wanted to do both, simultaneously, and that’s what I began around two and half years ago.
NOTEBOOK: How did your research as a filmmaker fit with the work undertaken by the Anti-Violence project?
FRANCE: I imagined this film from the start to be an exhumation. We would exhume the old case of Marsha P. Johnson, and at the same time there had been this digging to reveal the old history, which we could thread in. The idea for me was always to do both, to dig and to add, finding what scraps of video or film we could from the day to watch and hear from Marsha as she narrates her own role in the world as she saw it, voicing her own goals and aspirations.
Her partner through her period, and really her political comrade in all that she did, was Sylvia Rivera. We looked for footage from her life, and in doing so, though I also knew Sylvia at the time, I learnt so much. I learnt how emotionally close they were as a partnership, that their friendship was really a love story. That surprised me in the footage, and also helped me understand why after Marsha’s death, Sylvia encountered so much trouble in her own life. She was so heartbroken and destabilized by the death of Marsha, whom she considered her transgender mother, that she went through a period of homelessness, moving to the place on the Hudson River where Marsha’s body was found and spending a number of years living there and advocating for justice in Marsha’s case. The lack of success in this only contributed to her emotional heartbreak. We were able to find that in footage. To be able to watch Sylvia, in all her grief, confronting the demons that that loss had bestowed upon her was really remarkable, and I think gives the emotional core to the film.
It is archival footage used in a verité manner, as I did with my previous film. I want that old footage to speak for itself, and luckily, I was able to find enough if it so that we get a fully fleshed out sense of the hearts and souls of these two women. and the journey they go on together. We see through the investigation conducted by the NYC Anti-Violence Project especially, in the work of Victoria Cruz, the living legacy of what they were trying to accomplish back then.
NOTEBOOK: And is that something you were trying to express in the film, a sense of continuity between the stories that are there in the archive, and the same sort of violence that is continuing contemporaneously?
FRANCE: It was something I certainly learned as I was doing the work. I hadn’t been in the offices of the Anti-Violence Project in many years, and to go in there and discover that they are still fighting the same fight, and still doing it without the kind of cooperation that you might expect from law enforcement, was disheartening.
Victoria, at the time I approached her, was very involved in a contemporary case, that of Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old transgender women who was walking home from work one day, outside of a police station even, where she began a flirtation with a young man. When he discovered that she was transgender, only minutes into their encounter, he beat her to death. The inability of the tools of civic society to respond to that in an effective way still exist, which was surprising to me, if not to Victoria or anyone else involved in the Anti-Violence Project. I knew then that I couldn't tell this old story without saying that while so much has changed, so little has changed.
NOTEBOOK: Yeah, undoubtedly. Given that in the film you’ve got elements of this contemporary case and others like it, and this past material coming together, how did you balance this and decide which to devote more time to?
FRANCE: I didn't want to downplay any aspect, or let any take hold. I was worried when I started filming that we were using a ‘whodunnit’ form to tell this story to go back into genre to tell a story of real people and a real time. The problem with ‘whodunnit’ is that you are always looking for the ‘who,’ and in the case of the violence that persists against the trans community, particularly towards trans women of color—it’s not just the ‘who,’ it’s the entire system. There is never just a single killer, it is everything that is arrayed against the community, whether the inability to gain employment for many trans people, the lack of resources towards healthcare, the hostile relationship with the police and with prosecutors, the education system. Everything we take as granted as a society is removed from the trans community in a large sense.
So for me, it was important to reveal those other stories, as a way to say, look, whoever killed Marsha wasn’t acting alone. We all killed Marsha P. Johnson. That was the balance I was looking for, and the balance this story needed to be truthful about the situation and circumstances experienced by this community.
NOTEBOOK: Related to that, something I was thinking about when I was watching the film was how, on top of these wider, broader structural issues, there was a sense that within these activist communities there was a kind of self-marginalization, or rather levels of marginalization between groups and people, which was causing a hurt all its own. Was this pain of being pushed to the side by your own community something you were hoping to express in the film?
FRANCE: The film is really an origin story for the LGBT movement, how the T got attached to the L and the G and the B. The film focuses exclusively on the T, and the B was never glued on very well. Until the AIDS epidemic, the L and the G had a lot of trouble with one another. As a coalition, and I think you have to call the LGBT community a coalition, it had a very bumpy history, and still does. There is still not enough empathy across the lines within the community, and it was important for me to underscore that in the film but also to see the commonalities.
The movement had begun in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn and was led in significant ways by Sylvia and Marsha. The first modern LGBT rights organization came out of the ashes of Stonewall was formed by a dozen people, two of whom were Marsha and Sylvia. So, in that four year period to have them suddenly be thrown out of the community because they didn't represent the crisp and telegenic version of what the movement was trying to present as gay was devastating to them. This was a movement they had conceived of, spent so much capital creating, and really had sacrificed so much for. To find that they had be ejected in such a public way, on such a public stage in 1973. Then to find that we could not only tell that story, but find four cameras to tell that story in a cinematic way, using archival footage, was really a phenomenal, and essential moment.
NOTEBOOK: Have you found through making these films that there is a greater availability of archival footage during the periods you are drawing from due to the onset of video? And, going forward, do you think there will be even more to work with, as we are filming constantly on our phones?
FRANCE: How to Survive a Plague is an archival verité film. It’s 90% archival, and begins in 1987 which was really the dawn of the ‘home video revolution.’ It was exciting to be able to find that old VHS stuff, and the old Hi8 stuff, and be able to pull that together. I thought when I started on Marsha’s story, which begins in 1968/9, it wouldn't be possible to go back that early and still find the same wealth of material. It turns out it was just more difficult.
People were using those enormous video cameras that came in two parts, wearing a deck on their head and an enormous thing that looked like a television set on their shoulders. This was semi-professional equipment but artists were early adopters. The arts in New York were really centered in the village at the time, and because Sylvia and Marsha were so prominent there, they walked in front of those lenses all the time. A lot of the people who shot this footage are gone, and even those who remain didn't index the footage in a way that would let you know Marsha and Sylvia were in that footage. They were just characters in the scene, so to find them we really had to go deep into people’s personal archives, and just watch and digitize everything. You can’t run that old footage over the heads of the deck without doing it damage, so we made a promise to people that if they let us search, we would digitize their entire archive, regardless of whichever section of their collection we were interested in. Once we’d done this, we’d sit and watch this sometimes mind-numbing quantity of footage, looking for Marsha to appear from the margins and maybe give us a moment. Luckily she was there.
I’m not sure if we’d gone to a story that starts in the 50s we would have got anything, as that would have been all film. But, you asked whether it’s more likely we can find these stories today. We’ve seen many documentaries done with cellphones. I think of the political upheavals in Tahrir Square where the cellphone gives us access to things we wouldn’t have access to. What I’m worried about is storage, when tapes popped out of those machines, they were considered something valuable, they were put in boxes and put under beds. They were saved. The stuff that lands on our cellphones, we often and sometimes inadvertently overlook when we’re thinking about what we will save and what we won’t, and where we will save it. I haven’t done any research in that area, but I think it’ll be harder, but also a lot of fun to try.
NOTEBOOK: I guess what I’m wondering is whether now there will be more incidental filmed material, whereas in the time you are sourcing archive material from, the filmmaker is more conscious of the act of filming. A filmmaker, perhaps you, drawing from new material for a film made in twenty years time may have a real abundance of sources, accidental and intentional, to draw from?
FRANCE: It might be impossible, but what a challenge.
NOTEBOOK: When you are looking through footage and find these great people, are there other films that you saw that you wanted to make? In the recurring characters that occur in the margins of the footage, presumably there are whole other films that could be made.
FRANCE: The short answer is “yes.” I’m a recent newcomer to documentary filmmaking, and one of the things that motivated me to join the field was the lack of in-depth, cinematic portrayals of the community and individuals who made such historical contributions, not just to the LGBT community, but to the lives we all live as their legacies are felt everywhere.
Marsha was in my previous film, found often in the background of those scenes. When looking at the other people seen in the footage, you think about the overlapping narratives of so many people are full of remarkable and canonical stories. I could tell the story just of Marsha’s roommate Randy Wicker, who is such an interesting character. What the film doesn’t say about Randy is that he was the last living member of the Mattachine Society, the pre-modern gay rights movement, and that he was the first open homosexual to appear on radio in the U.S., something that caused such an uproar that a suit was taken against the station for indecency. He was also the first gay person to show his face on national television. We’ve got all of these enormous historical milestones, that when added together create our history.
NOTEBOOK: Related to that, is there a difficulty with this material, when delving through personal archives, that you’ll be finding people—particularly in activist communities—who don’t want to be found or seen, or didn’t want to be recorded at the time. Is there a greater danger there?
FRANCE: Are you talking about ethical or legal issues?
NOTEBOOK: Ethical ones, primarily.
FRANCE: The people who had that old equipment and were really trying to find the power of early video were also doing something very predictable.They were filming a lot of sex. A lot of people hadn’t gone back to these tapes in a long time, so we saw some very private moments from those generous to let us peek. It was great to see people in their youth and their nakedness. That for us, was the largest challenge, to respect that aspect of what people were doing, without exposing it or them to any ridicule.
Ethically, most of the footage I’ve used in my films has been shot in public arenas, with the assumption that people have put themselves there to make a political point. Though the private moments are still very political.
NOTEBOOK: As a final point, what is your hope for the film? What would you like it do or achieve, perhaps within the context of it’s being picked up for distribution on Netflix? I have some friends, whose film eventually landed on Netflix, and their favorite thing about that was that lots of people who wouldn’t see the film come across it accidentally and end up loving having being exposed to a sort of film they wouldn’t voluntarily seek out.
FRANCE: You know, Netflix says that’s not an accident. They talk mysteriously about the algorithms, how you don’t stumble on things, they put them before you. I believe in a way that they can help us find an audience. My goal for the film isn’t to speak to trans or queer communities alone, but to bring this story to the world. It has a solid inspirational quality to it, showing the ability of utter outsiders to find power, to find their voice, to find an audience for their revolutionary areas, and to find the wherewithal to bring that forward to the point that it actually changes culture. I think anybody can find inspiration and power in that, and hopefully use that to empower their own movements or to find self confidence or discover their own voices. That’s what I hope the algorithm will do, whatever that thing is. I hope it will find people who need to know that power and agency is possible.