The confrontational power of Act Up activism

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When you’re feared by the world, your power is immeasurable. This was understood by Act Up-Paris, the angry and jubilant collective that spent the 80s and 90s forcing people to recognise the danger of the AIDS epidemic.

Back then, the LGBTQ+ community, sex workers and drug users were in a biological chokehold; forced to face their own mortality as HIV spread somewhat silently throughout the city and beyond. But to make sure the masses didn’t forget about it, audacious protesters played dead, strewn across the forecourt of Notre Dame carrying signs that read ‘Silence = Death’, and throwing fake blood on the gates of the Elysée Palace.

There was a movement forming; politicians and priests dreaded the protesters’ presence. Manifesting on the streets of New York in 1987 before crossing borders to reach other countries, Act Up reached Paris in the summer of 1989 thanks to a trio of friends: Didier Lestrade, Pascal Loubetand and Luc Coulavin. Their tenacity fuelled the formation of one of the city’s most visible protest groups, and Paris felt stronger for it.

“For 10 years, the community was so silent. Act Up felt like a new freedom” – Robin Campillo, director of 120 BPM

Whether we’re discussing the French or the global situation, a strange, almost villainous homophobia existed back then. There was a fear of ideals – of the so-called “gay cancer” that actually permeated all creeds, classes and sexualities in society – that made many people uncomfortable. But Act Up forced politicians to address LGBTQ+ issues. It wasn’t unusual for the the group’s members to congregate around high schools that refused to support contraception and distribute condoms themselves, or to hold impromptu lectures on how to practise safe sex to students.

Robin Campillo, the writer and director of the group’s widely celebrated and award-winning biopic 120 BPM, walked into his first Act Up meeting in lieu of a rendez-vous. His other half failed to show up, and having been fascinated by the group’s militant and forceful approach to AIDS campaigning for the past year or two, he felt compelled to take part. He was met with the antithesis of what he had come to expect: a family of angry and yet triumphant campaigners. “I had to ask myself: where is the disease?,” Robin tells me over the phone from Paris. “But it showed later. After weeks and weeks of going, I was shocked by the [extra] dimension of the group, but there was a jubilation that came from the fact that for 10 years, the community was so silent. It felt like a new freedom. It made us stronger.

There’s this kinetic energy that flows through 120 BPM. By turns sobering and upsetting, miraculous and beautiful, it paints a picture of Act Up-Paris that sheds light on their bravery, reminding us that we’re in a better place now because of them. In a social era that actively tried to silence the voices of those suffering from AIDS, there was no other way to be heard than to be loud. Polite discussion wasn’t getting the community anywhere fast, and Act Up’s confrontational approach got people talking.

But for all of its political power, there’s still something indelibly sexy about 120 BPM: a film that explores both the perils of queer existence as well as its more riveting and intimate moments. Effortlessly, the film weaves protests with a potent love story between two Act Up activists: one suffering from AIDS, the other disease-free. It’s a proudly queer and loving collaboration, so alive it wound up winning six Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) in March.

Nowadays, with drugs like PReP (a course of medication that can stop HIV infecting a person exposed to it) proving that there’s more than one preventative method in reducing new HIV cases, people might question why groups like Act Up still need to exist. “But I don’t see the political will from the prime minister to make all of these new methods [like PReP] efficient,” Robin tells me of the situation in France, dwelling on the fact that in Eastern Europe, contraception is still dangerously expensive. “Today, it’s Act Up’s role to make politicians understand that we have the chance to control the epidemic.”

London’s arm of Act Up told me they found 120 BPM “heart-wrenching and inspiring” when they saw it, and revealed they’re marking the film’s UK arrival with a rejuvenated call for change. “We will be strengthening, educating and supporting our community,” said Act Up’s Dan Glass. “[We want to] confront the root causes of the privatisation of the NHS through a series of creative art-interventions and civil disobedience, which will ultimately empower our movement.”

There’s a reason that famous slogan –“Silence = Death” –is still boldly printed on placards and t-shirts today; because without groups like Act Up, or films like 120 BPM, how would we be reminded that complacency is so often a killer? For a new generation of queer people, sex workers and drug users that are still exposed to the dangers of HIV and AIDS, engaging with these activists – both on screen and off–will leave you feeling hopeful, rather than victimised. That fear may be lifting, but there’s still progress to be made yet.

120 BPM is released in UK cinemas on 6 April

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