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Cannes Filmmaker Recalls His Past as an AIDS Activist

Robin Campillo

Robin Campillo, the director of the critically-acclaimed film at Cannes, didn’t have to go far for inspiration for his AIDS-era film.

“I actually lived through this time,” said director Robin Campillo at a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival in France, immediately following the film’s first screening (and relayed in an article by The Hollywood Reporter). Campillo’s film, 120 Beats Per Minute, has been very well received since its premiere at Cannes last week and many critics are calling it the first major contender for the prestigious Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor.

A drama set in Paris in the early 1990s, 120 Beats isfocused on the activists within the Paris chapter of ACT UP, an organization that Campillo was a “militant” activist in. ACT UP, in the U.S. and abroad, was ultimately successful in getting pharmaceutical companies to speed up clinical trials for HIV medications and to get politicians to pay attention to the suffering around them.

However, Campillo said the film is not intended to serve as an example for modern-day activism, but more so as a memoir of the era.

“To me, it’s not a film that’s designed to give people advice,” he admits. At the time, many people were dying, so many of the activists were literally fighting for their lives. “I don’t know how one would mobilize people today."

Campillo drew heavily from his own personal—and often painful—experiences from this time. “I’ve dressed up a boyfriend on his death,” recalled Campillo, speaking of a particularly powerful scene in the film which was inspired by this experience.

Despite his very personal past relationship with the subject matter, Campillo says he was at first hesitant to take the project on. “I was a bit afraid of tackling this,” he said at the press conference. But Campillo eventually made the decision to write the screenplay with Philippe Mangeot, saying, “I just thought it was high time to deal with the topic."

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