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BPM director on art and AIDS activism: 'We decided not to be poor, gay victims'

For Your Consideration: Robin Campillo’s French Oscar submission prompts protesting beyond the internet

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Céline Nieszawer

Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 24, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week, BPM (Beats per Minute) director and AIDS activist Robin Campillo discusses the ability of his hauntingly gorgeous foreign language Oscar submission — which follows the personal struggles of a steadfast band of ACT UP-Paris advocates as the epidemic spreads throughout France’s LGBT community — to inspire an age of digitally discoursing citizens to get out from behind a computer screen and affect change for marginalized groups in the real world. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you hone your vision for this film?
ROBIN CAMPILLO: It took me ages to figure out… In newspapers in the early ‘80s, we saw pictures of people who were ill in the United States. It was a shock for me, as a young gay guy. I was paralyzed by the fear of this epidemic to come; they were saying most gay men were going to die. At the same time… we were told that cinema was useless [as a tool for change]… so in the early ‘90s, after the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, I went to [AIDS activist and advocacy organization] ACT UP-Paris as a militant, and it changed my perspective on the epidemic, life, and cinema: We decided to not be poor, gay victims.

Céline Nieszawer

Were you actively working against tropes and clichés we often see in other AIDS-themed films?
I was afraid to disappoint my friends [with the film], so I did two films before this. I wanted my directing to be fluid, in order to do [our struggle justice]. After my first film, They Came Back, in 2004, I wrote a script about the [AIDS] subject called Drug Holidays. I did it for a year and a half, but I realized it was a little bit dull in that it was about just one person with AIDS. For me, that wasn’t interesting, so I decided not to do that film because it was too conventional, and when I started working on this film, I realized I [was mining material] from my memory… even if the film is realistic in the details, it’s also like a dream… I put all my memories and perspective forward to create a construction. I didn’t try to do a “historical” film. I wanted people to be connected to the emotion, sensations, and sensuality we experienced at the time.

Céline Nieszawer

I also tried to make a film about fun. A lot of… former militants of the ACT UP groups, they’re thanking me because I put [something as simple as] club dancing into the film, because it’s true: we were [doing that at the time, too!]. Political struggle is sometimes seen as very serious, and we were struggling; we were trying to survive — not only to have a job and life, we wanted to party, we wanted to have sex, we wanted to do drugs, we wanted to do everything, because we were very young! And that’s not apart from the political struggle, it’s in the art of it! You can’t have a good political struggle if there’s no jubilation in it, if there’s no hope for it!

At a time when so many are at odds with politicians around the world, are films like this relevant to the fight for change?
I didn’t do the film to lecture anyone about our politics now, because I was doing what I could at the time [the film takes place]. Mine was a generation of brave guys doing something we felt we had to do. This is a film before the internet… now, you can post radical statements on the internet. On Facebook, people are posting radical texts [all the time], but that’s not really efficient, because [you’re not meeting] in the flesh, as we were… before confronting the laboratories and politicians [about changing their policies regarding AIDS and medication], we were confronting each other, and there was a collective intelligence created by these kinds of meetings, and it seems now, in France, there aren’t as many demonstrations [against President Macron’s policies] — people are so angry at him on the internet, but that doesn’t make a difference… In France, we lack a little bit of [motivation] in the political struggle.

Céline Nieszawer

What I tried to do with this film is make people understand that, to create a political [difference], you only have so much time [and] we took the opportunity to make a difference, but this kind of opportunity doesn’t show up all the time. It’s very rare to find a political window to impose things and to change society’s perceptions of political subjects.

Why do you think the film was selected to be the face of France at the Academy Awards, then, if it’s critical of the government?
I’m sure it would be difficult to do this film, which was a little bit expensive for a film about minorities, in many countries. In France, it was OK to do it. It didn’t take us too long to have the money! While people liked the idea of the film, there’s a gap between the artistic world and the political world. When the film was at Cannes, it was a big success, and a lot of politicians tried to be a part of that success. That’s what’s funny! Most of them were so aggressive with ACT UP at the time, it’s like they forgot what was going on, and that’s embarrassing for me, so I told them: “Please, don’t talk about this film, because you weren’t on our side when we were asking you to change your politics.”

[Earlier this year], there was a big international AIDS conference in Paris, and [French President Emmanuel Macron] didn’t show. He didn’t go to the conference, and he didn’t ask his minister to go to the conference [either]… two months before [after Cannes], he was trying to invite me to the presidential house, just to have a picture with me… we still have to criticize this, because I don’t want to be an instrument in [that] plan.


For more information on ACT UP’s AIDS activism in the United States, visit the New York chapter’s page here. BPM (Beats per Minute) enters limited release on Oct. 20. Keep up with EW’s Awardist coverage here, and head here for a full list of Best Foreign Language Film contenders.