I went to see Robin Campillo’s film 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) this weekend and was surprised by my ignorance. Set in the early 1990s, the film centres on Paris-based AIDS activist group ACT UP as they battle to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic that is sweeping across France, and of course more widely across the entire world.
My ignorance was not based on my lack of factual knowledge surrounding the AIDS epidemic. I like to think I know the basics about how the epidemic started, the fear-mongering that ensued as frightened governments looked for an easy scapegoat, and the global impact that AIDS had. Where I was ignorant was in my understanding of the effects AIDS had on the lives of every individual it touched.
120 BPM is an exploration of the social impact that ACT UP had on Parisian life in 1990s France. The French Government has vowed to introduce affordable, possibly life-saving medication for people living with HIV and AIDS, but nothing is happening. ACT UP takes to direct action, orchestrating a series of protests that forced the French Government to take notice and begin to address the issue of medication.
The Human Price Paid
The film isn’t just political, it also focuses on the lives of the ACT UP members, many of whom are HIV positive. When one of the newbies of the group, Nathan, falls for veteran ACT UP member, Sean, and we get a poignant glimpse into the human side of the disease. By ‘human’, I mean seeing the disease from the point of view of the sufferer, and from the eyes of those watching the person they love battle the disease.
That’s ultimately what AIDS was, a battle. It was a political battle in the sense that it was a constant fight to get governments to fund AIDS research and give access to medication. It was a social battle, in terms of the stigma it created. Finally, it was a humanistic battle, in that it broke up families, destroyed relationships and killed millions of people globally.
What 120 BPM does is tell the story of that battle, slowly honing in the human price that was paid. As Nathan and Sean’s relationship develops, so do Sean’s AIDS-related illnesses. Through Nathan’s eyes, we see Sean’s radiation treatments, his scars from lymphoid tests, and the slow deterioration of his body, as the disease reduces him to a shell of his former self. Watching Sean deteriorate, I felt emphatically connected to his story. I grew anxious and fearful.
That is the power of 120 BPM. Campillo was a member of ACT UP during the AIDS epidemic in 1980s France and his lived experience is palpable throughout the film. I think as queer people, even if we didn’t live through the AIDS epidemic, that we have a tangible connection to this story. It’s because we know the struggle of being queer. We know through lived experience the difficulty of coming face-to-face with prejudice, discrimination, and violence, and in that experience, we learn of the fragility of life.
120 BPM connected with me through the fragility of lived human experience. It literally put me in the shoes of another and gave me a view of the world that is inside me, but which I had not connected with yet. Before seeing it I had not connected with the human side of the disease; I was ignorant of it.
After watching 120 BPM, I feel more connected, more assured, and at the same time more horrified than ever about the ravaging effects AIDS had on the queer community. What I learned too is that battle against HIV and AIDS is far from over, and we need to apply constant pressure to ensure it never goes unaddressed again.
120 BPM at the IFI until April 19, book tickets here
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