‘beats per minute’ is an urgent drama about 90s aids activism

The Oscar-buzzed film illustrates how indebted modern LGBT culture is to the ACT UP movement.

by André-Naquian Wheeler
24 October 2017, 9:14pm

The opening of Beats Per Minute immediately captures how instrumental ACT UP was in pressuring global health organizations to finally address the AIDS crisis. The members hijack a public health meeting and Sean, always the passionate one, throws fake blood at a prominent official. Scenes like this are exactly why Robin Campillo's latest work — France's submission for the Oscar's Best International Picture category — is a formative film. Opening in the U.S. this week, the French-language drama depicts France's ACT UP movement in the early 90s. Directing and writing the film, Campillo draws on the five years he was part of ACT UP to create a touching roman à clef that pay tributes to the friends he lost to HIV/AIDS. A moving romance between Sean, who is HIV-positive, and Nathan, who is HIV-negative, is interwoven with rousing scenes of activism. BPM provides a necessary reminder: so many things the modern LGBT community takes for granted — from Grindr to RuPaul's Drag Race — would not exist if AIDS activists hadn't made the public value our lives.

Refreshingly, things are not always so bleak in Campillo's film. There are hazy, orchestra-scored scenes of clubbing, sex, and laughter mixed in with the characters' pain and frustration. In fact, a love scene is one of the most powerful moments in the film — Sean and Nathan physically expressing their fear, affection, and confusion in candid, awkward maneuvers.

Campillo talks to i-D about the personal pain involved in writing and directing Beats Per Minute, and how he wanted to change the way HIV/AIDS is depicted on screen.

What was your starting point for the film?
My inspiration came from the memories I have of being part of ACT UP, which I joined in 1992 at the age of 20. As a young gay guy [during the AIDS crisis], I thought, What can cinema do to report this thing that's so important in my life? So for many years I tried to write about it, but the scripts were always about a guy who was lonely and got infected. I was not very happy with them because I did not want to talk about that. Then, seven years ago, I realized what I wanted to talk about: the activist group I was part of for five years. I wanted to focus on the collectiveness, not the loneliness.

How did the French ACT UP movement differ from the movement in the U.S.?
I'm really honored to be chosen by France as its Oscar selection, because I really wanted this film to be shown in New York and the United States since ACT UP was born here. The biggest difference about France's ACT UP was that there was a president, whereas America's was more democratic. The other difference is that this kind of activism was very new to France. It was seen as very "American." The French media was very interested in the way we were behaving in France — because it was very new. There were some critics who thought ACT UP was not "French" enough. That made us very popular. Even though we were only 100 people, the media was always filming what we were doing.

What did you want to change about how AIDS is typically represented in film?
I wouldn't compare it to other films. One big concern I had was that I didn't really want to show the disease too much. Because there's already enough great stuff out there focusing on that aspect. You have documentaries like Silverlake Life: The View From Here, where the filmmaker films the death of his boyfriend. I just wanted to talk about the loneliness of it — the fact that Sean is in a death corridor during his last days. This very specific state where someone is in-between death and life.

What surprised me about the film was how much the group's members disagreed with each other. Some members felt like their activism needed a radical, shock-factor approach, while some wanted to take a sober, science-based approach.
For me, the important thing in the film to talk about was these two oppositions. There is an opposition between Sean and Thibault [the president of the group] where it's a question of how do they represent the disease to the public. I feel like because Sean is very far into his disease, he is more proactive. But Thibault has the luxury of being a little more distant and can think about how HIV/AIDS is represented. For Sean, it's not possible to talk about "strategy."

BPM draws heavily on your personal pain and loss. What was the hardest part about making it?
The hardest part was writing the script. It's not a historical film — it's really a film about my memories. I didn't really go to too many documents for research. I must have been in some kind of "recording mode" when I was part of ACT UP because I remember everything. When I was writing the script, I felt very sad because it felt like I was saying goodbye to my youth. But when it came to starting production and finding a crew, that was a relief — because I was no longer alone. I had other people to take my emotions.

Cinema is a collective way of creating — which is what ACT UP was like. I got to work with so many young actors and actresses who were embodying people I knew, so there was something very exciting and refreshing about that. Sometimes, during the editing process, I was a little bit overwhelmed.

And how does it feel to watch it?
I watched it for the first time at Cannes right after I finished editing it, so that was hard because I was bit bored. But it felt like the pinnacle of my experience to watch it. I really understood what I did, what the purpose of ACT UP was. And I'm always very, very moved by the last five minutes of the film. I'm so proud of it. I really love it.

Beats Per Minutes is in U.S. theaters now.

Images courtesy of Les Films de Pierre