Film

Revisiting the early AIDS struggle in 120 Beats Per Minute

Released on the eve of World AIDS Day in Germany, the film "120 Beats Per Minute" is an award-winning homage to the young AIDS advocacy activists who helped raise awareness about the disease in early 1990s France.

France in the mid-1980s: The country is shaken by a blood bank scandal. Many have died. AIDS can no longer be ignored or overlooked after being repressed for so long. The French film "120 BPM" revisits this dark chapter and the inspired response of young activists, and was celebrated at the Cannes Film Festival this year when it won the Grand Jury Prize.

Between 1983 and 1995, around 30,000 people died of AIDS-related causes in France. In 2007, André Téchiné directed "Witnesses," a film that looked back at the consequences of the ballooning human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV) and which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and starred Michel Blanc and Emmanuelle Béart. Indeed, many of the director's own friends died of the virus.

Ten years later, Téchiné's compatriot Robin Campillo has again dealt with this era and the AIDS epidemic in France with a different directorial concept. With the story of a young man who becomes an AIDS activist in early 1990s France, the director does not rely on stars and melancholy scenes in beautiful southern French locations, as Téchiné did, but takes us back to central Paris where the activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) got together.

Filmstill 120 BPM (picture-alliance/Everett Collection/Memento Films)

"120 BPM" is also a film about friendship and love

Doing justice to the survivors

With largely unknown actors, Campillo has staged a very distinctive and emotional film, one that literally gets under the skin. The title is synonymous with the film's fast pace and the lifestyle of the young people portrayed. 

For the director, who was born in Morocco in 1962, "120 Beats Per Minute" was also about processing a very personal story. "I was afraid to make the film because I wanted to do justice to the story of the survivors of this drama," Campillo said in an interview with the German Press Agency.

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The film thus has a strong autobiographical element, with the director himself involved in the ACT UP movement, which was initially founded in the late 1980s in the US to better inform the general public about the AIDS pandemic.

Revealing an ignorant society

In France, too, many people living with HIV became more politically involved in spreading AIDS awareness and founded a French offshoot of ACT UP. This was vital in a society where politicians, business leaders, and large sections of society had tried to downplay the immense impact of AIDS.

Filmstill 120 beats per minute (Celine Nieszawer)

"120 BPM" reflects on what can be done to combat ignorance


Campillo shows the beginnings of the movement in France — the first meetings, struggles, friendships, and the sometimes anarchistic and militant fight against indifferent government policy, but also the morally reprehensible machinations of the pharmaceutical industry — especially the scandal over contaminated blood products which shook the country in the mid-1980s.

"I wanted to fight against my fear of the disease," said Campillo when explaining why he joined ACT UP in 1992-1993. "I wanted to fight illness because I wanted to enlighten the public, society was left completely in the dark in the '90s." 

"120 BPM" which Variety described as a "sexy, insightful, profoundly humane film," is Robin Campillo's stunning homage to that time.

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