Real-life superheroes: Give yourself a cinematic education in AIDS activism

In a world where mostly mediocre superhero movies make billions of dollars every year, why is so little interest paid to fantastic movies about true heroes?

World AIDS Day is Friday, December 1 — so watch one of these important films

BPM (Beats Per Minute). (MK2 Mile End)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

Last month, French filmmaker Robin Campillo's BPM (Beats Per Minute) briefly found its way to movie theaters in North America. It had already garnered significant attention at some major film festivals, including a Grand Prix-winning debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May and a North American premiere at TIFF in September. I saw it at the latter, where in lieu of any major prizes, it certainly won my heart.

Set during the onset of the AIDS epidemic in France, BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a fictionalized tribute to the activists who fought against the system to save countless lives. While specifically depicting ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)'s Paris chapter, it's a narrative representative of what members of similar groups all over the world were surely experiencing at the time. Just try and imagine what it must have felt like to be battling viciously quiet governments and drug companies for AIDS-related legislation, research and policies while people all around you — lovers, friends, family members — were dying. That's what Campillo's film does by astutely expressing how terrifying those years must have been while at the same time pushing its audience to walk out of that cinema feeling exhilarated and activated, which are two emotions the world needs as much of as possible right now.

The unfortunate thing is that not too many people willfully made their way to those emotions when BPM was released in theaters in October. Its North American gross as of this past weekend is just $79,215, essentially what Justice League made while you read this sentence. And yes, I understand that comparing a 140-minute French language film about AIDS to Justice League is questionable in many capacities. But it's still distressing that in a world where mostly mediocre superhero movies make billions of dollars every year, so little interest is paid to a fantastic movie about real-life superheroes.

"It's still distressing that in a world where mostly mediocre superhero movies make billions of dollars every year, so little interest is paid to a fantastic movie about real-life superheroes."- Peter Knegt, writer

In the early 1990s portrayed in BPM, deaths attributed to AIDS were reaching staggering new highs. In Canada alone, the numbers increased to a record of 1,501 in 1995, up from 912 in 1990. That year was also an all-time high for AIDS-related deaths in the U.S., where approximately 50,000 people died from AIDS in 1995. The following year, those deaths declined for the first time in both countries and largely continued to do so from that point forward. The decline was attributed primarily to the success of the new drugs that would were fought for by the superheroes of groups like ACT UP Paris and sister groups like ACT UP New YorkAIDS Action Now! Toronto and Reaction SIDA in Montreal.

AIDS ACTION NOW! at Toronto Pride in the early 1990s. (AIDS Activist History Project, accessed November 28, 2017)

I'm obviously not trying to say AIDS was no longer a massive problem after 1995, or to reduce the massive, complicated history of the disease to a few statistics from Canada and the U.S. alone. But think of it this way: for the past 35 years, HIV/AIDS has essentially been a world war with hundreds of individual war zones involving different demographics of people in different countries at different times — and many of them are ongoing. The war zone depicted in BPM is just one example, as would be the ones happening in Toronto or New York or Montreal at that same time. And the soldiers — in these cases mostly made up of gay men (though there was also a sizeable lesbian contingent) — that fought battles in those war zones for the medications that extended millions of lives are owed a great legacy. But way too many of us know very little about them.

This Friday, December 1 marks the 29th World AIDS Day, and my proposition to anyone who that feels they know too little about the history of AIDS is to give yourself an education in honour of that. It might be too late to watch BPM at a movie theatre (though it comes out on iTunes in January) but there are many extraordinary films that came before it. I'm not talking about Philadelphia or Dallas Buyers Club; if these narrow, whitewashed films — basically made to win straight people Oscars — are your primary source of AIDS education, you are part of the problem. I'm talking about documentaries like Peter Friedman and Tom Joslin's Silverlake Life: The View From Here, Derek Jarman's Blue, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt, John Greyson's Zero Patience, David Weissman's We Were Here and David France's How To Survive a Plague. They are all easily available online.

David France's "How To Survive a Plague." (IFC Films)

Better yet, head to one of the many World AIDS Day screenings happening across North America that are being organized by Visual AIDS. The 28th annual iteration of Visual AIDS' longstanding Day With(out) Art project, the screenings are curated by Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett and feature work from artists Mykki Blanco, Cheryl Dunye & Ellen Spiro, Reina Gossett, Thomas Allen Harris, Kia LaBeija, Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Brontez Purnell. Over 100 partnering institutions across the world will screen the program, including groups in Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. 

However you end up participating (there are also plenty of books you could pick up), I assure you that while they may not be as easy or escapist a watch as a superhero movie, you'll come out of them feeling a hundred times more exhilarated and activated than you did walking out of Justice League.


Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.