Director Robin Campillo didn’t have to do any research for his new film, the Cannes competition entry 120 Beats Per Minute, which focuses on the impassioned AIDS activists within the Paris chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in the early 1990s.
“I actually lived through this time,” he said Saturday at the official press conference for the film, following its first press screening. “I was an ACT UP militant in the ‘90s,” he said, and he witnessed the ravages of AIDS first-hand, recalling, “I’ve dressed up a boyfriend on his death,” a memory that inspires a particularly poignant scene in his film.
120 Beats Per Minute is constructed around a series of ACT UP meetings, in which the activists debate various actions designed to challenge public complacency and force both the government and the drug companies to take action, and then follows ACT UP members as they carry out their theatrical protests.
Gradually, it also zeroes in on two of the participants: Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), an HIV-positive young man spurred to action by his plunging T-cell count; and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), an HIV-negative guy, new to the movement, who becomes Sean’s boyfriend.
The film itself could be considered a French companion piece to Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which documents the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and David France’s How to Survive a Plague, which recounts the creation of ACT UP in New York City in the 1980s.
Still, for all his familiarity with both the issue and the era, Campillo admitted, “I was a bit afraid of tackling this,” but he eventually decided, “I just thought it was high time to deal with the topic,” and so he sat down to write the screenplay along with Philippe Mangeot.
Although the project was a period film requiring a large cast, producers Hugues Charbonneau and Marie-Ange Luciani said raising the financing was easier than it was for Campillo’s last film, 2013’s Eastern Boys. It took them three years to raise the $2 million needed to shoot Boys, but just a few months to assemble backing for 120 Beats, which cost just under $5 million.
While the movie looks back at an example of activism that had genuine results, leading to pharmaceutical companies speeding up trials, Campillo doesn’t think the movie necessarily offers a road map for present-day activists. “To me, it’s not a film that’s designed to give people advice,” he said.
“I don’t know how one would mobilize people today,” added Campillo, theorizing that what really motivates activism is not just a cause but a sense of struggle — AIDS activists were literally fighting for their lives.
“It is very difficult to create political movements,” he said. “As we see in France at the present.”