Revisiting the early AIDS struggle in 120 Beats Per Minute

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Prize-winning: '120 BPM'

The drama "120 BPM" is the latest film to take on the illness. Directed by Robin Campillo, the movie tells the love story of two young AIDS activists. It won the Grand Prix jury prize at Cannes in spring and opened in Germany just ahead of World AIDS Day.

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An early work: 'Longtime Companion' (1989)

Above all, French and American productions took up the subject of HIV and AIDS early on. "Longtime Companion" by Norman René is considered the very first to have described the disease as it tells the stories of eight gay middle-class men who are friends in the early 80s. That's when the illness first appeared and began ravishing the community, the impact of which is at the heart of the film.

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Autobiographical: 'Savage Nights' (1992)

The French director and lead actor in "Savage Nights," Cyrill Collard, likewise takes up the topic of repression of AIDS when he brought his autobiographically influenced novel of the same name to life. In the film version, Collard plays a bisexual who does not take his life or that of his partners into consideration. He died in 1993, just one year after its release.

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Oscar-decorated: 'Philadelphia' (1993)

Jonathan Demme's film "Philadelphia" was the first major Hollywood production that brought AIDS to the big screen for a wide audience. In it, Tom Hanks plays a lawyer who is let go from his job due to his illness. He takes his former employer to court in a melodramatic and sentimental film that is very effectively staged. With the Oscar-winning film, AIDS was finally recognized by Hollywood.

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Semi-documentary: 'And the Band Played On' (1993)

Whereas "Philadelphia" was a true Hollywood production, "And the Band Played On," released that same year, took a quieter, nearly documentary approach to the AIDS epidemic. Starring Matthew Modine as the young AIDS researcher Dr. Don Francis, the film by Roger Spottiswoode attempted to tell the tale of those infected by including numerous stories.

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Controversial: 'Kids' (1995)

Two years later, director Larry Clark put out the teenage drama "Kids," a fictional narrative with a documentary feel. The director highlighted the youth culture in New York in the mid-90s, where sex is on the minds of young boys and girls alike while AIDS lurks in the background. The scenes are drastic and with actors not yet of age, the film created quite a controversy after its release.

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Melodramatic: 'All About My Mother' (1999)

What appears to be a standard Pedro Almodóvar film, "All About My Mother," released by the Spanish director in 1999, takes on the lives, loves and sorrows of a handful of protagonists. Set in Madrid and Barcelona, the melodrama addresses gender roles and society's prejudices, with AIDS playing a central role in the film.

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Looking back: 'The Witnesses' (2007)

"The Witnesses" is French director André Téchiné's look back to the 1980s, when the AIDS crisis first came into focus. The movie follows several characters as it shows the disease and its impact on their lives at all stages. The movie was celebrated at the Berlinale for its handling of the AIDS epidemic but wasn't able to make the leap into German theaters, despite stars like Emmanuelle Béart.

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A global perspective: 'Same Same But Different' (2009)

Germany has likewise tackled AIDS as a film subject. Rosa von Praunheim was the first, with his typically anarchistic approach in "A Virus Knows No Morals" in 1986. In 2009, director Detlef Buck took a more worldly view on the global crisis, with "Same Same But Different," which follows the love story between a young German man (David Kross, seen above) and a Cambodia prostitute.

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An actor's film: 'Dallas Buyers Club' (2014)

"Dallas Buyers Club" by Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée was widely acclaimed upon its release three years ago. Matthew McConaughey (r.) and Jared Leto are brilliant as two people living with HIV in the 1980s, who are trying to get their hands on the AIDS medications that could prolong their lives. Both actors won nods from the Academy for their roles.

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.

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"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 von Robin Campillo

"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." 

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