A vibrant portrait of AIDS activism in the 90s

We spoke to the writer-director behind the Cannes Grand Prix-winning portrait of AIDS advocacy group Act Up!

120 batte

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (far left) in 120 battements par minute.

When I sat down to talk to Robin Campillo about his new, Cannes Grand Prix-winning film 120 battements par minute, he had been doing interviews since Cannes. That’s nearly nine months of seemingly perpetual talk about a single film. “You discover things every time,” says Campillo. “I try to think of it in the sense that it will help me for the next movie. It helps me think about things – even in the Q&As, there are times when I get to think about what I did. There are all kinds of things you do when making a movie that you do completely unconsciously — it’s very particular!”

120 battements par minute draws on Campillo’s own experiences as a member of the Act Up! Paris activist group in the early 90s. At the height of the AIDS crisis, Act Up! Was an advocacy group that favored protest in the form of direct action. They’d stage non-violent protests by storming government offices or participating in the pride parade — but the majority of 120 battements par minute is focused on the group’s meetings. The protagonist of the film, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) is a long-standing member of Act Up! whose illness begins getting worse just as he begins to fall for a fellow activist (Arnaud Valois). Though Sean’s story is the driving narrative force of the film, Campillo very much favours the fly-on-the-wall approach to the meeting scenes.

“Everything was scripted,” says Campillo. “When you make that kind of decision, there’s certainly some worry that sets in. It’s a gamble — it could’ve been boring. Of course, I imagine some people are bored by it anyway! I wanted to show political intelligence at work — the nuts and bolts of it. I also wanted to explore, as the film went on, how intimacy pops up during these meetings. All the meetings are different — the issues at play vary based on the meeting. What I did was write really long meeting scenes — even longer than what appears in the film! My obsession, ever since my first film, has always been casting. Finding the people that make these scenes interesting. Film is a collective effort, even more on a project like this one! I needed to find people who managed to make this dialogue come alive, or funny, or moving. It’s only about finding this person and this person and that person and putting them together.

We rehearsed for three days before the shoot — and only the debates. None of the other scenes were rehearsed. That way, I could see all the problems that popped up in terms of dialogue, in terms of posture and movements. From there, I rewrote the script and the dialogues to tighten things up a little bit. It really helped me understand what was at stake in each scene. It’s interesting because you keep the realism that makes all of those scenes feel natural, but at the same time, you can really see how the narrative evolves in said scenes. From there, the DOP and I set up three cameras in the room, gave the actors approximate direction, and shot one take very quickly. After about half an hour, we had a first take. It was a nonsensical mess! We could see the microphones, people are in the wrong spots, and so on. But that way I could really see the scene play out and rebuild it. It’s a constant work in progress, but one that I find fascinating and that alleviates a lot of anxiety for me, because it feels like everyone else is making my movie for me!”

Though 120 battements par minute is a period piece, it retains a real sense of immediacy. AIDS is perhaps no longer the crisis that it was in the early ’90s, but Campillo’s film gets at the genetics and the everyday workings of an activist movement in a way that can easily be applied to current movements, be it Black Lives Matter or Femen. Understanding the way Act Up! worked is a step in understanding how current activism also works.

“It was very important to me not to make a historical film,” says Campillo. “I didn’t want to make a movie about ghosts, a movie about the past. That would’ve be terrible. What really moved me during the shoot was that I’d hired young guys and girls, some of which were gay and some of which were not. They all had a different story than I did about that period, even if they were gay themselves. They have their own set of worries about AIDS — because we’ll never really be done with AIDS, make no mistake about it. Instead of making a period piece, I made a timeless one. Even in the costume design, I didn’t get too far into the exotic designs of ‘92 – I made something somewhere between then and now. In any case, a lot of that stuff is coming back now, so it’s very easy to get lost in the temporality of it all!”

Although the film is very much grounded in Campillo’s own experiences in Act Up!, it isn’t biographical. Sean is not Robin Campillo. “When I arrived in the group in ‘92, I was completely seduced by this sort of intelligence contest that was happening,” he says. “The amount of self-awareness that there was in the group – it’s something that you see very little of in life! (…) It was very appealing to me that Sean’s character is so theatrical about his illness, but then again, there’s an authenticity to it. He plays around with it, but he’s still completely and utterly involved in the political struggle.”

I bring up that the majority of other films I’ve seen about AIDS have a certain mainstream grasp on the period – films like Philadelphia, And The Band Played On and The Normal Heart leaned on movie stars to “legitimize” the story. “I wanted to show the genealogy of the emotions we were feeling at the time,” says Campillo. “Not just the emotions, but the vivacity. There’s something to this story that’s so strong and so present. The strange thing about The Normal Heart is that it’s actually written by the founder of the New York chapter of Act Up! and it tells that story. It does it so dramatically, though, that I have trouble seeing myself in it. It talks about fear – the epidemic was a lot more violent in the United States, it only made it to France after. They lost a lot of people very quickly. In France, it was slower.

We still had this feeling that we didn’t exist. There was something to the fact that we were living such brutal things without ever being recognized. That’s why we were so angry. But we were happy in that anger, in a way, because we had found each other. We were in an enormous wave of positivity. I’m not nostalgic, in that sense, but I’m happy that I lived through that. It’s so rare in life to live through a moment like that.” ■

120 battements par minute opens in theatres on Friday, Oct 13.