Think a two-and-a-half hour subtitled drama about the AIDS epidemic in 1990s France sounds like a drag? Think again. BPM (Beats Per Minute) is electrifying cinema, bringing a moment in history vividly to life, and challenging us to live more urgently and truthfully ourselves.
The film revolves around the Paris chapter of ACT UP, a motley group of activists battling the apathy of government officials and the self-interest of pharmaceutical companies. New recruit Nathan (Arnaud Valois) is drawn into the drama of political protest – and into a romance with HIV-positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart).
BPM is available to rent from Curzon Home Cinema. The film is rated 15 for strong sex, nudity, sex references, language.
BPM is stylishly shot and soundtracked, but it’s the performances which make it extraordinary. There’s something special about being drawn into a story by an unfamiliar cast, without the distraction of Hollywood names. It’s an ensemble effort, but Valois and Biscayart in particular impress as they chart their characters’ poignant connection in the midst of the storm.
The film is rooted in its time and place – but of course, the battle against HIV/AIDS is far from over. The Terrence Higgins Trust was founded around the same time as ACT UP, and is now the largest voluntary sector provider of HIV and sexual health services in the UK. I was curious to hear how BPM might play to someone who’s living and breathing that fight – Ian Green, the Chief Executive of the Trust.
Tell me a bit about Terrence Higgins Trust, and your role.
IG: Terrence Higgins Trust was established in 1982 in response to the AIDS epidemic in the UK. It was founded by the friends and partner of Terry Higgins, one of the first men known to have died of AIDS here in the UK.
Today, our goals are to end HIV transmission in the UK; support people living with HIV to live well; amplify the voices of people living with HIV to eradicate stigma; and enable all people to enjoy good sexual health.
As Chief Executive, it’s my role to work with our team to ensure that every single thing we are doing is to meet one of those strategic goals, no matter how big or how small.
Can you tell me a bit about the community you work with, and the challenges people are facing?
IG: We work with a range of people and communities, including people who access our services, organisations we work in partnership with, people living with HIV who share their stories with us and the wonderful people who undertake incredible fundraising challenges to support what we do.
The challenges that face people living with HIV now are very different to those from the 80s and 90s. Today, if someone is diagnosed with HIV and accesses early and effective treatment, they can expect to live just as long and healthy a life as anyone else. Once on effective medication, someone living with HIV then becomes what’s called ‘undetectable’, which means they cannot pass the virus on to sexual partners.
Did you see any reflections of this community in Beats Per Minute?
‘We have always tried to work with the Government rather than against it.’
IG: I think that’s tricky as different people approach activism and advocacy in different ways. For us, and for any charity with a lobbying history, we have always tried to work with the Government rather than against it.
But one thing that certainly is shared is the same passion and electricity, despite different methods and different challenges to those that faced us all those years ago. This comes down to a shared understanding of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of stigma and discrimination.
The activists in the film are a sort of family – but they also argue passionately about how to achieve their goals. Was this dynamic familiar to you?
IG: Certainly the concept of a close-kit and supportive family is something that I think people who work in the HIV sector experience. When you’re fortunate enough to work in a role that combines your values and often your personal experiences, it’s difficult not to be passionate.
Passion among people can often lead to heated discussions and debate. But more importantly it also leads to achieving your shared aims, which will have a positive impact on others and society. We are very fortunate to have a thriving HIV sector in the UK – I don’t always agree with everyone’s opinions or approach but I acknowledge and value their dedication and passion.
What did you make of ACT UP’s tactics in the film? Do shocks, scares and protest theatre have value, in your opinion?
‘That relentless courage and drive is something that I believe still exists in activism today.’
IG: Shock tactics are used to grab attention, or headlines, and they can certainly achieve that. Different approaches work for different activists, and what’s most important is that all of us have the right to freely express our activism, provided it isn’t hurting anyone or inciting hate against others.
The 1980s and 1990s was a very different time for HIV activism when people were fighting for research, support services and treatment.
One thing that stood out for me in the film, which is no doubt massively impactful for audiences who watch it, is the selfless activism that runs throughout. Much of BPM follows characters who are fighting to save the lives of their friends, right up until death. That relentless courage and drive is something that I believe still exists in activism today.
The film struck me as pretty frank – about sexuality, and about the physical realities of illness and death. Do you think this frankness is a political statement in itself?
‘You cannot divorce sex, sexuality, illness, death and dying from the narrative around the last 30 years of the HIV epidemic.’
IG: Frankness can be an important part of activism. We need to meet people where they’re at, and talk to them in a language that strikes a chord.
Robin Campillo (the film’s director) and Philippe Mangeot (its co-writer) were both members of ACT UP at the time that this film is set, and so I imagine that everything about it is as personal as it is political.
You cannot divorce sex, sexuality, illness, death and dying from the narrative around the last 30 years of the HIV epidemic. The way in which BPM deals with that manages to strike in an extremely emotive and engaging way. I think that’s just one of the reasons it’s such a powerful film – that speaks not just to the people who lived through that time, but also those who know very little about it.
The film is set in the 1990s, and it shows us the struggle that ACT UP faced just to get basic sexual health information into the right hands. Is this still a challenge for you, even in the age of Google?
IG: People living with HIV who are on effective treatment cannot pass the virus on. That’s a fairly straightforward concept to understand, isn’t it? Despite that, there are still so many people who don’t know it, and who incorrectly think HIV can be transmitted in a myriad of ways. Our research showed, for example, that 30% of people thought HIV could be transmitted through sharing a toothbrush!
Raising awareness of basic sexual health information is absolutely crucial. Fear and ignorance act as barriers to people doing their own research and learning more about sexual health.
‘People living with HIV who are on effective treatment cannot pass the virus on. That’s a fairly straightforward concept to understand, isn’t it?’
Cutting through people’s preconceptions of what HIV is, who it impacts and how it is transmitted is no easy feat, in particular as there are still so many adults who will have the early HIV ‘tombstone ads’ still engraved in their minds.
How do you get past those preconceptions?
IG: We do it through sharing the stories of people living with HIV. We try and ensure that our presence is felt in all areas, corners and categories of daily life. That might mean a bar, a community centre, a school or at a conference.
One striking scene in BPM is where the activists leaflet a school with information on sex and HIV – this is something that those of us working in the HIV sector can relate to today. Access to age-appropriate and inclusive sex and relationships education is absolutely vital to ensure young people have the knowledge to make the best decisions as they grow older.
Even today, Terrence Higgins Trust is working with the Government to ensure that Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is inclusive of all people, and includes vital information about HIV, treatment and prevention.
What do you think this film might mean to people in the gay and HIV positive communities? What conversations do you hope that it starts, within those communities and beyond?
‘I hope that this film is a catalyst for discussion, activism and remembrance.’
IG: As someone living with HIV who was diagnosed in 1996 the film reminds me how fortunate I am to be living in the developed world where there is good access to effective treatment and healthcare, and that I can expect to have a normal life expectancy. Many of my friends who were diagnosed much earlier than me died from AIDS related illness. I hope that this film is a catalyst for discussion, activism and remembrance.
Sophie Lister is the editor of the Damaris Media blog