AIDS Activist/Filmmaker David France on Ed Koch: 'What He Could Do, He Didn't Do'

Ed Koch Former NY Mayor - H 2013
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Ed Koch Former NY Mayor - H 2013

Just before the former New York City mayor died, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker said that he failed in helping quell the spread of AIDS.

Ed Koch is the subject of a new documentary that releases wide on Friday; it promises to be a much kinder depiction than the one in David France's Oscar-nominated film How to Survive a Plague.

The former three-term mayor of New York City died early Friday morning of congestive heart failure at the age of 88. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday, France, who was a journalist during the AIDS epidemic that ravaged New York's gay community throughout the 1980s and whose film shows footage of Koch arguing angrily with protestors, was critical of the then-mayor's response to the health crisis, among other things.

"He presided over a city that was broken in many ways. It was broken in that it had a severe housing shortage, it was broken in that it had serious poverty with no social net, and then the hospital system was broken," France said. "He had homelessness, he had a drug epidemic that was ballooning, and then we had this other mysterious epidemic that was filling hospitals. They were overflowing, and he was responding to none of that in an effective way. Instead, he was a pugnacious mayor, and he would respond to requests and really the pleas of his community with hostile retorts."

Film Review: How to Survive a Plague

Koch was known for launching a major housing development project in the city, but the hospital-bed shortage under his watch was one of the worst in city history. In an interview for a New York Times story on the crisis in 1988, Daniel Sisto, the president of the State Hospital Association, struck a desperate tone.

"Hospital people worry privately about what we should be saying," he told the newspaper. "We don't want to scare the public, saying we're not giving the best care. Yet we're in such a state of stress, there are situations where there could be jeopardy. I heard about someone trying to get to Massachusetts for open-heart surgery -- and they didn't make it."

That in many ways echoed what France remembered.

"So here’s what it meant to people with AIDS: by the late 1980s, the hospitals were so over-packed that people with serious conditions related to their AIDS were not able to get into hospitals," he continued. "People would go to hospitals and be put on gurneys in hallways, where they would spend the rest of their lives, before being seen by physicians, before being admitted into the hospital. And you would see that in all the hospitals. You would go in and you would see all these people just lined up against the wall, sick and emaciated. And he did nothing about that, and that’s his purview, that’s his system. He couldn’t fund research or find a treatment, but what he could do, he didn’t do."