BPM and the Future of HIV Narratives
I first heard about BPM–the 2017 film that tells the story of Paris activists racing to discover life-saving medicine during the AIDS epidemic–when its US trailer popped up on my Facebook feed in early October. Full of confetti, romance, and house music, the trailer set my queer family abuzz with excitement.
And this one, it seemed, was destined to win some major awards and give recognition to the oft-forgotten activists of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). The film won international praise and the Grand Prix when it premiered at Cannes in May 2017. The Guardian called it “passionate and defiant,” the Los Angeles Times described it as “deeply absorbing,” and Paris’s own Le Monde declared BPM “explosive.” French director Robin Campillo delved into his years of experience in the Paris chapter of ACT UP to tell the story of activists fighting indifference from pharmaceutical companies and homophobia from the French government, adding a personal level to the massive story. Barry Jenkins, the director of last year’s Oscar-winning feature Moonlight, tweeted, “How is this not the film of the moment?"
And then, by mid-November, it was gone. The discussion that dominated my social media timelines vanished, seemingly overnight, and took with it any chance that BPM would get the recognition it deserves.
So I have the same question as Jenkins: how is BPM not the film of the moment? It is not only the best queer film of 2017, it’s probably the best film of the year, period. It treats each of its character with deep humanity and intimacy while still somehow keeping a firm grasp on its sweeping narrative. It’s a textbook for modern activists, a tribute to both the dead and the survivors of AIDS, and an erotically charged celebration of queerness, all wrapped up in a beautifully acted, stunningly directed, and gorgeously written tale.
Again: how is BPM not the film of the moment?
Films about queer lives are few and far between. Even further between are films that talk about the loss of an entire generation of LGBTQ individuals to an ugly and vicious disease that represents perhaps one of the greatest public health crises in modern history. There’s Philadelphia, Dallas Buyer’s Club, and The Normal Heart. Recent Oscar nominee Philomena touches on the subject. As for documentaries, we have only a few options; And The Band Played On and How To Survive A Plague come to mind.
The epidemic didn’t seem like a story that urgently needed to be told. At least, that’s what I thought, until I received an HIV-positive diagnosis in May 2017.
In some ways, I find this shocking. After all, queer people today owe so much to the sacrifices of the generation before us. If Stonewall provided the first hints of our collective queer power, the AIDS crisis provided the opportunity to build a movement that could bring queer issues into the mainstream of society. When the epidemic began, notes the preeminent AIDS chronicler Randy Shilts in his classic text, And The Band Played On, “the epidemic was only news when it was not killing homosexuals.” Yet by 1996, LGBTQ people had become a potent political force, capable of bending politicians and scientists alike to their will. In fact, AIDS presented a turning point in how our community viewed the role of politics in legitimizing our lives. In a 1987 interview with the New York Times, Jeff Levi, then-executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, “The goal prior to the AIDS crisis was to get the government out of our lives. Now, because of AIDS, we are asking the government to help save our lives. The objective of the movement is no longer just to seek a right to privacy, but also to get the government and society to affirm our lives just like they do for heterosexuals.”
Then again, this also seems par for the course. Heteronormativity has suppressed plenty of HIV-centric art, I’m certain, but so has our community’s desire to move on from the devastation of the disease. Just take a look at Will & Grace, which premiered in 1998 yet fails to mention HIV even once in its entire run. Queer people had already done plenty of remembering and grieving; by that point, they just needed to laugh.
Plus, we were tired of fighting, of forcing people to care, of doing the hard work of activism and education. In 1996, when I was only two years old, these activists (and the scientists and politicians they targeted) could take a deep sigh of relief as the number of HIV-related deaths began to drop for the first time in over a decade, thanks to the newly-hailed “drug cocktail” discovered that year. Of course this was good news, but it also meant the momentum of ACT UP and other groups slowed dramatically.
Thus, as a gay boy growing up in a conservative Christian home in the early 2000s, my concerns had little to do with the scourge that ravaged my beloved community only twenty years prior. The LGBT issues relevant to my life centered around marriage equality, conversion therapy, internalized homophobia, and whatever happened in the previous episode of Glee.
By the time I became sexually active in 2013, HIV barely registered as a potential risk. Advances in medicine meant it had become a manageable chronic disease (at least, for those with health insurance). Plus, Truvada had hit the market: the pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), taken as a daily regimen, effectively brought one’s chances of contracting HIV down to zero.
A film like BPM indicts those who stood by and did nothing as complicit in the murder of HIV-positive people.
The disease never completely vanished, of course. It hasn’t been eradicated, and HIV-negative people like myself could still vicariously experience some of the terror and trauma of the plague through artistic works like those I mentioned earlier. Ultimately, though, the plague was a distant memory for me, a forgotten nightmare, a long-gone scourge. While I wasn’t opposed to remembering those in the plague, of course, by telling their stories, I didn’t see any pressing need for it. HIV narratives were for the dead, not the living. Simply put, the epidemic didn’t seem like a story that urgently needed to be told. At least, that’s what I thought, until I received an HIV-positive diagnosis in May 2017.
I was at work when the doctor called me with the news. She asked if I was sitting down, and that’s when I knew. She didn’t need to say anything more. I spent the next week surrounded by supportive friends and family members, which lessened the blow. But I still felt as if I didn’t belong, as if I were an alien: the world was the same, but I was different. Everyone saw the same old me, but I couldn’t recognize myself.
But this was 2017, not the 1980s, and everything ultimately proceeded smoothly. Watching BPM, I found myself contrasting my experience, finding few similarities with the gay men on screen. The characters of BPM have nothing but questions and uncertainty about their future. In one scene, they argue whether protease inhibitors–the type of medication I currently take–are effective, with one character dismissing the pill as gnat’s pee. A quick Google search today can verify their efficacy. The HIV-positive individuals in BPM take expensive meds every four hours with severe side effects and uncertain results. Meanwhile, I take my own pill once a day with no side effects, and my T-cells slowly but surely have returned to normal levels as the medicine suppressed the virus. In another scene, when one man is asked about his day job, he replies, “I’m poz. That’s all.” Meanwhile, I returned to work after receiving my diagnosis, with no change to my daily routine.
Awarding BPM would honor the legacy of ACT UP and grant it the legitimacy it never received in its heyday–but only at the risk of exposing our hypocrisy in failing to make reparations to those affected by the plague.
Ultimately, my own HIV story is worlds apart from the characters of BPM in that there isn’t much of a story for me to tell. Where an HIV diagnosis once presented a radical reorientation of one’s priorities, it’s barely something I think about most days.
And when I realize that, I begin to understand why we all ignored BPM: watching stories like BPM is uncomfortable and unsettling because that story isn’t finished. We’ve neutered the disease, sure, but every person who lives with HIV today is a testament to the way our government, our churches, and our healthcare system spent a decade utterly ignoring the shouts of people dying of AIDS. As a person of faith, my survival is a reminder to every conservative bigot that death by this disease is not a punishment from God. A film like BPM indicts those who stood by and did nothing as complicit in the murder of HIV-positive people. A film like BPM taps us on the shoulder and then punches us in the gut as we’re forced to reckon with the fact that those who survived the crisis still deal with the fallout from our inaction today.
In researching this piece, I discovered Last Men Standing, a 2016 documentary from the San Francisco Chronicle that follows eight gay men who survived the plague, only to discover that their life hasn’t gotten better. In fact, it may be worse, as they all struggle with psychological, physical and economic brokenness in the intervening years.
I think there’s a connection between the way our largest and most celebrated film awards ceremonies have utterly ignored BPM and the way our societal institutions failed those who died of AIDS–and continue today to fail those who survived. To recognize AIDS as a story worth telling is to recognize the ways homophobia, ignorance, and fear have caused and continue to cause suffering and death around the world. As Didier Lestrasde, the founder of ACT UP Paris, has noted, "We created this movement in the midst of insults.” And the insults continue today: for over a decade, Lestrade has been unemployed and on social services, just like so many others who bravely fought throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Awarding BPM would honor the legacy of ACT UP and grant it the legitimacy it never received in its heyday–but only at the risk of exposing our hypocrisy in failing to make reparations to those affected by the plague. So instead our institutions have ignored BPM, allowing larger society to continue business as usual.
There is one moment, early on in BPM, where I did recognize myself. The members of ACT UP ride a train back from a protest against a a large pharmaceutical company, celebrating their victory.
But Sean, a young man who hides the pain of his diagnosis behind his sardonic wit, brings down the jovial atmosphere. He reflects, “There are times when I see how AIDS has changed my life. It’s as if I lived things more intensely. As if I saw the world differently. As if it had more colors, more noise more life. In the morning, mainly.” His eloquence silences his comrades. They wait for him to continue on.
Instead, he cracks a grin, breaks into laughter. “I’m kidding!” he exclaims. “Nothing’s changed, don’t worry. Waking is still tough.”
In that shift, I saw myself. Because if there’s something that defines my HIV narrative, it’s the lack of a clear narrative. There are days in which I feel as though HIV has utterly changed the way I approach life, and there are days when I go without even a passing thought on my status. I’m lucky to have that, but it’s confusing, too. I thought my life would follow certain steps after my diagnosis, but really, little has changed. Waking is still tough.
After I got HIV, I sought out movies set in the present day that deal with the disease. I thought these stories could help me navigate this new world, help me orient myself.
I didn’t find anything. Watching BPM, I understand why my search came up empty. I don’t have a clear HIV narrative because the generation of HIV-positive individuals that came before me still doesn’t have any decent conclusion to their story. They still deal with traumatic grief, homophobia and the inability to access treatment. We can’t move on to telling my story until we finish telling theirs because those survivors deserve a satisfying ending. To move forward, we must look back.