Drawing on his personal experiences with Paris’ ACT UP pressure group, Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM is a rousing, heart-breaking celebration of queer activism. Set in the height of France’s 1990s AIDS epidemic, the film follows introspective, HIV-negative Nathan as he gradually gets pulled deeper into the group’s agitating political demonstrations, direct action and protest rallies. An intimate and deeply moving love story as much as it is a thoughtful and well-paced historical account, 120 BPM has a vitality and urgency to it that perfectly embodies the pulse-racing energy of its title.
In the very same way ACT UP used visual symbols – water balloons filled with fake blood, mass graves made up of hundreds of protesters lying ‘dead’ in the streets – to jolt the pharmaceutical industry, politicians and French public alike to sit up and take notice of their suffering; so to does Campillo use his visual style and cinematic flair to celebrate the advocacy and determination of a marginalised community under siege. Though it chronicles a story from the recent past, 120 BPM and its history of ACT UP offers a vital blueprint for action in the here and now. At a time when our identity and ideals are being eroded, 120 BPM sits side-by-side with David France’s seminal How To Survive A Plague, as an important call-to-arms for the LGBTQ community. Ahead of the film’s release on 6th April, we spoke to Campillo about what it was like to live through the height of the AIDS crisis in the 90s, how he found moments of humour in times of crisis – even when such crises necessitated him dressing the lifeless body of a recently deceased friend – and why he feels our sense of self has matured and evolved as a community in recent years.
The film deals with your own experiences working with ACT UP in Paris in the 1990s, was it sad revisiting those memories at all?
It was hard to write the script, it was the first time I got emotional. Most of the time it’s not the sort of process where you get invaded by emotions but that was the case with this film. Once that was over you have all these actors and technicians who get into your work, they take the emotions out of you. It became so lively, for me, it was nostalgic to do the script, but at the same time you can’t be nostalgic because it was very hard. You have to find young people to embody those characters so it becomes more lively. It reconnected me to my own youth. It was a little bit hard in the editing but the shooting was great.
There’s a moment in the film where one of the characters has to dress the body of a recently deceased friend. Am I right in saying that’s something you did yourself? There’s almost a moment of comedy there...
It’s very hard to explain to people, but I think the film is successful in doing that. In those kinds of situations it’s not only sad, the most important sensation is being out of reality, you are in a place which is not real. It’s almost dreamy. When I got to the apartment, my friend was crying and he said, “The mother wants to dress him but I can’t do it because she’s crazy, do it for me.” It was four in the morning, I knew the mother a little but not much, there was an odd intimacy, we had to get him naked before dressing him again. She was talking to him the whole time, “Help me, lift your leg…” I thought it was ridiculous in the moment, I wanted to say to her “You know he’s dead?” We have a chance as humans, somewhere in the brain you have a kind of energy which prevents you from being destroyed by your own emotions, I wanted to talk about this kind of anesthesia. We were living in a moment. We were young, people were dying very young and in a way that helped us get over it. I’m not sure I could go through those moments now, at my age, I think it would be more difficult for me. ACT UP Paris came 10 years after the epidemic, we felt impotent, we didn’t have any leverage, so we got together to stop being the young gay victims and we decided to be the evil fags. We were a little bit rude and it really legitimised us. The first time I went to ACT UP in 1992, it was fun, there was so much jubilation in the debates, I even asked myself where is the disease? After a few weeks the disease came back, it showed, but the electricity is what I wanted to talk about. People reinvented themselves in this group because we were obliged to do a lot of things, write texts, design posters.
Do you think the film uses this storytelling and its central romantic relationship to package an important history lesson for the younger LGBT community?
What you call the love story is not a strategy to make the pill more digestible. I don’t know what is love between those two characters. I think I wanted to talk to the younger gay generation somehow. For example, for me condoms were a chance. Before we knew they were working we were lost and very afraid. Once we knew they worked it was like a new sexual liberation. It’s hard to explain that to someone now, it’s more boring, I wouldn’t go back definitely, but I wanted to talk to a younger generation. A lot of young gay people discovered things that they didn’t know, things I didn’t know that they didn’t know! It’s a stupid thing to say, but I didn’t know that for some people it was a real historical film. It has a history that’s not connected to their life.
Do you think there’s the same sense of community nowadays? Are there specific issues that bring us together today in the same way the AIDS epidemic did in the 80s and 90s?
In the early 90s we weren’t talking about LGBT, we were talking about gay and lesbians mostly. (Laughs) Even then we thought we were being generous allowing the lesbians in! I have a feeling that before ACT UP the gay community didn’t exist in France. You had a lot of small groups in the 70s and Gay Pride was growing until 82 but then, because of AIDS, no one went back to Pride. The 80s were very bad time for gay community. ACT UP reinvented that, we decided to make a good Gay Pride, but I wasn’t thinking of gay community then. Community is a forbidden word in France, just like minority, because we are one big republic and everyone is equal and you cannot have minorities or communities, because those shut others out. It’s a stupid French fantasy. The first thing that created ACT UP was community. It was beautiful because it was the moment we felt we were inventing the gay and lesbian community in France but it’s always more beautiful when it’s blooming and after it’s a little bit dull when it’s an institution. I don’t do so much for the community – apart from this film – I’m not so involved now, I feel like I did a lot. I’m a little bit tired now. I didn’t make this film to lecture people. Young people sometimes ask what should we be struggling for? I don’t know, there still is struggle but I can’t give lessons to these people.
It’s something each generation needs to decide for themselves?
Exactly. The new struggle, we don’t know what they’ll be in the next 10 years. When we were in ACT UP, we knew there was something wrong that couples weren’t recognised. When one of us was dying, the other got evicted from the apartment and the family got it. It’s related to the idea of gay marriage, there’s a chronology there. At the time we didn’t ask for gay marriage, it wasn’t in our mind at the time.
It’s a very physical film, the sex is physical, there’s a clear focus on the impact of the disease on the body, the dancing. Why was it important to focus on those physical details?
Because our bodies are important. When I was 20, at the beginning of the epidemic, I was too skinny. Everyone assumed I had AIDS, and that was something very shameful for me. I think the first impact that ACT UP had on me was on my body. The disease pushed me back in the closet a little. The shame does something to your body, you fold in on yourself. When I saw gays on the tube I was trying to hide myself with my own body. I remember that the first time I saw ACT UP in the street, Philippe Mangeot, he was going to the cinema wearing his ACT UP t-shirt, I thought “Oh my god, he looks so strong.” I think I came to ACT UP to try that. It has always been related to our bodies. The epidemic forced us to reinvent how we thought about our bodies. I try to film the bodies a lot, during the debates, I wanted the bodies to be important, the bodies of the girl, the small body of the mother at the end, I wanted it to be a confrontation of words and bodies.
Have you shown the film to today’s generation of ACT UP members? What was the atmosphere like?
Most people were very moved, I did it out of my memories but it’s very precise, people who were in the group are amazed that it looks so much like what we went through. The funny thing is that I invented the characters but everyone I met said, “Ah! That’s me!” One of them said, “I’m the guy on the first row, writing…” I thought, that’s not even a character… ACT UP Paris still exists, we are going to do a party, to try and raise money for them. I hope the film helps raise awareness and funds.