NUMÉRO: 120 Beats Per Minute is based on personal experience.
Robin Campillo: The idea for this film started growing in my mind after the very first articles I read about AIDS. Something happened at that moment which was like science fiction. The portending catastrophe, especially for gay men, was so incredible that it drove me into an extreme state of existential doubt. In 1982, Libération published an article which they entitled “The gay cancer.” I remember that I woke up with marks on my body; I went to see a doctor with the paper under my arm! He told me, “Perhaps you’ll catch AIDS, but for the time being all you have is a fungal infection.” Later on there were the famous Paris-Match photos which I used in the film, the first portrait of a couple in which one of the partners was sick. I pushed those images to the back of my mind in a sort of denial, and I started film school. To a certain extent movie-making was a shield for me.
How did you navigate the junction between your desire to join the Act Up fight and to make movies?
I had a very strong impression that the films I loved couldn’t talk about AIDS. Like many of us in France, I’m a child of the Nouvelle Vague. At the time, I admired figures like Éric Rohmer or the Straubs. In 1983, just before starting film school, I went onto the set of L’Argent, the last film made by Robert Bresson, who was a hero for me. I felt that this was a type of movie-making that couldn’t take a hold of a subject like that. It’s why I spent a long time trying to work out what films to make. The shorts I made at film school are pretty far removed from what I was living through at the time. They’re not embodied. My whole work is about finding how to get back to embodiment. For me, joining Act Up was an opportunity to finally establish a direct relationship with an event that had had enormous importance in my life.
What made you decide to go back to your Act Up period 20 years later?
First of all, inside of me it just had to come out. Then there was all the debate about gay marriage in France and the question of continuing the campaign for safe sex among gays. I wanted to talk to today’s young gays, but not in a paternalistic way. It simply seemed to me that my story was forgotten or misunderstood. Telling it was also a way of talking about a moment when a certain number of people, especially on the gay scene, said to themselves, “We’re not going to be passive victims of this disease anymore, we’re going to become influential participants.” This moment of realization happened at that moment among the members of Act Up. We were fed up with being “nice gays” who were victims of the epidemic, and we became “nasty queers” who decided to burst forth into the public eye.
That’s still very contemporary: minorities today think in the same ways you did about visibility.
I have a feeling that the same things are said about other minority political movements as were said about Act Up: “They’re closed in on themselves, they’re not open to others…” We made use of Anglo-Saxon terms and methods which came from the original Act Up, and no one in France could deal with that. People hated the word “community” which they put in the same basket as “communitarianism.” Community, identity, ghetto: it was all the same for them. I remember an article written by Communist members of parliament which said that our methods were too foreign. As though one had to be in a French culture of contestation in order to get heard.
You weren’t the descendants of May 1968…
We could identify with certain aims of the 68 uprisings, but we belonged to a different realm. HIV politicized people who might otherwise not have joined a political movement. It brought together very different social strata. All of a sudden, people who would never otherwise have met found themselves together. It was very intense.
When writing 120 Beats Per Minute, did you use your own memories?
I started by digging through my memories, recalling events and debates, before doing research to check certain facts. That said, the movie is pure fiction – I created a mixture of past truth and invention.
But the emotion of a cer tain phase in your life comes through.
For me the film is Proustian. I filmed my memories. I was very moved to see boys and girls who were too young to have lived through those times finding something in the movie, the music of the voices, a certain humour, a certain disingenuousness… Act Up wasn’t like parliament, or the Roman Republic, or the Revolutionary Assembly, it was a debate which, emotionally, was located elsewhere.
How did you work out the structure of the film, this constant alternating of word and action, ideas and bodies?
To start with I structured it in clusters, between the power of the group’s pronouncements and almost phantasmagorical images that stage the militants in high-impact operations. It was like being backstage with a theatre troop. This troop took for a stage those rather theatrical places that are institutions – lecture halls, pharmaceutical laboratories, primary and secondary schools – and imposed on others its way of acting, its way of seeing the world Céline Nieszawer through the prism of AIDS. I wanted to capture this bursting out before showing how, before long, one of the characters could no longer continue playing the game of representing his own illness: he became so synchronized with it that he could no longer stand the disparity.