This Year's Best Film About AIDS Activism Is Coming to America

'BPM' recounts how Parisian Act Up activists jolted pharmaceutical and government forces into doing something about HIV. One of Act Up's founding members tells us how the film came to be, and his hopes for the future of AIDS activism.
October 9, 2017, 10:30pm
Members of Act Up-Paris at Paris' Gay Pride in 1989. All photos courtesy of Didier Lestrade

BPM (Beats Per Minute), a new film that won the Grand Prize at this year's Cannes film festival, has taken France by storm. With a pastel-toned palette and a high-octane soundtrack, it tells the story of how the monumental AIDS activist group Act Up launched in France, using concerted and combative activism to jolt the pharmaceutical industry and politicians into treating the HIV epidemic with the gravity it deserved.

And they succeeded: Without their defiance, antiretroviral drugs would have been brought to market far too late to save many who had been infected.

BPM reenacts how Act Up activists made this future possible, through die-ins on city streets, breaking into pharmaceutical company offices to throw balloons of fake blood, protests in government offices, and the pooling of lifesaving drugs procured through clinical trials. And through it all, they still had lives of their own: They fell in love with one another, working by day and dancing in clubs at night.

The film has received high praise for portraying both the big and small details of such an endeavor, and for creating a riveting story out of the dry facts of history. Characters inspired by real-life activists like Cleews Vellay, Didier Lestrade, and Robin Campillo (who directed the film) shine on screen throughout.

BPM opens in American theaters on October 20; it was recently selected to represent France for the 2018 foreign language Oscar, so VICE reached out to Didier Lestrade—a co-founder of ACT UP Paris, prolific author and publisher, and one of BPM's chief influences—to ask him about the film, his thoughts on the successes and new goals of AIDS activism, and his own hopes for the future.

VICE: Every single one of my friends in France has been telling me how incredible BPM was, and I'm seeing photos of you everywhere I look. How are you holding up these days with all this publicity?
Didier Lestrade: I had a rough and pretty empty 2016, and the movie changed all that. My first book, Act Up: Une Histoire [ _ACT UP: A History_] has been republished after 17 years, and people who saw the movie now feel the need to know more about the beginning of Act Up in Paris and its achievements. I've been touring across France to help promote the film while director Robin Campillo and his actors are focusing on promotion abroad.

BPM has been a phenomenon in France; so far, more than 600,000 tickets have been sold, which is huge for an independent film. It's a cultural event, and at this point, the crowds I've seen at the theaters are really young, especially compared to the first showings that had attracted plenty of older gay people. I feel honored to be part of this project ,and I dearly love Robin Campillo, as a friend and as a director. Some people are suddenly thinking of me, at nearly 60, as one of the last LGBTQ leaders of that time, although this recognition has come a bit late—the fact is, I'm still struggling and unemployed. I'm actually finishing a book on porn and hookup culture that will be released early next year, and I have the feeling it's going to be the first of my ten books that's going to sell.

There's no question that your experience with the New York movement was essential to your first steps as cofounder of Act Up Paris. Does it feel like a homecoming of sorts as this film comes to American shores?
Well, the timing of BPM couldn't be better, as 2017 is the 30th anniversary of ACT UP New York. Since that time, the history of AIDS activism had practically disappeared, especially in France, where we didn't have the chance to bring out great documentaries like We Were Here . The younger generations don't have a clue what Act Up was, so this is new and exciting and inspiring for them.

It's much harder for those of us who knew AIDS. Some of the gays I know are afraid to see the movie because it might trigger old memories and past traumas. But this movie is not a tear jerker; it's very different from the famous old AIDS movies—it's very French, with a love story and a lot of young gays and lesbians. It feels like ACT UP New York.

To me, the magic of the film lies in its showing how France drew inspiration from America's AIDS activism. New York was our model, and this movie is the love letter we're presenting to the leaders of ACT UP in America. We had been so afraid of not measuring up to the standards they had set that we had made it our goal to always keep improving our ideas and methods.

Lestrade and others protest at New York's City Hall in 1989

I was amazed by how cleverly the film highlighted the various ways Act Up worked: increasing public and governmental awareness, of course, but also engaging directly with the pharmaceutical industry. These conversations are still ongoing today. What do you think does and doesn't work in AIDS activism these days, both in America and globally?
In France, Act Up changed a lot of things, and showed a minority group can indeed have a widespread influence on society. But the limits are the same whether we're thinking domestically or internationally: there's less access to drugs and AIDS screening for minorities and trans people. More than 6000 people are still getting infected each year in France. Our main goal is now to make sure that generic versions of drugs are available in developing countries, that better follow-up care is provided, and preventions techniques like PrEP become accessible to larger portions of the population. Hepatitis C now has a powerful and successful treatment, but we have to make sure the price of the drug decreases and that generic versions become available. STDs remain a big problem as resistance to antibiotics grows.

But the other problem is that AIDS activism is at its lowest point in decades. Younger generations don't do shit. They see us as a successful generation of gay baby boomers who can't let them breathe. So they don't get involved. They just want to party, which I totally understand, as sex is the "in" thing again, the way it used to be in the early 80s. But we need new blood.

In the same vein, what are your feelings about the advent of PrEP? This medicine likely would never have been developed had it not been for ACT UP's activism, but several countries (including, most recently, Canada) have delayed rollout.
I'm all for PrEP now. Early on, I wasn't wholly convinced by the data, but now it's clear that it works well. Still, the number of men who have access to it in France is still too low (it's just above 4,000) whereas it's double that in England.

As an HIV-positive man, I've been exceedingly safe for 30 years—it's only been the last couple of years that I have finally been able to have sex without condoms, and it's a great, liberating experience. I never thought it would be possible, and here it is. I think we managed to offer gay people new tools for a better sex life, and we should be thanked for that. We've been warning them for decades about the dangers of sex and now we can talk about it in positive terms. So we've gotten these drugs into bodies, a lot of people have stopped dying and we can finally have fun again. Now that's a success story!

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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