Why BPM (Beats Per Minute) is the Film 2017 Needed

Adam Baran is energized by the French drama about AIDS activists, and offers up a list of ways those similarly inspired can get involved.

“The strong women told the faggots that there are two important things to remember about the coming revolutions. The first is that we will get our asses kicked. The second is that we will win.” – Larry Mitchell, The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions

“Don’t ask that guy – he wants to hang them all!” – The President of the United States of America


This year, am I right? This fucking awful, disgusting, stressed out horror show of a year, am I right? With our President openly doing all he can to kill huge swaths of the American people, destroy basic freedoms, spread racism, violence and homophobia, support fascist ideology, and turn the truth into falsehood, 2017 has felt like living with an abusive parent or spouse, where one never knows just what incredible, insane thing is going to set this monster off and make him throttle us within an inch of our lives. Who among us, besides fascists and racists, has not felt at some point this year like we are living in a nightmare from which we may never survive?

Which brings me to Robin Campillo’s masterful BPM (Beats Per Minute), which is set, of course, in another era when people didn’t think they were going to survive (and millions didn’t): the 1980s and ’90s. Campillo’s gripping historical drama, which is in theaters now, takes place before there were life-saving drugs to treat HIV and render positive people’s viral loads undetectable – and thus make them incapable of further transmission of the disease. Campillo follows the members of the French branch of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) as they stage powerful, sometimes messy protests, fight for access to drugs in unprecedented ways, and try to carve out spaces to live their life, fall in love and make each moment count. In a year in which thousands of people all over the country have formed activist groups which put the techniques of ACT UP (and other resistance movements) to practice, there’s no better, more urgent, more vital piece of cinema than this riveting film.

Though the story begins as a multi-character drama, it quickly becomes clear that the tale will be told through the eyes of newcomer Nathan (the gorgeous Arnaud Valois), who joins the group and gets a crash course in the complex dynamics of group activism. Nathan meets the HIV-positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, who deserves an Oscar nomination), who at first appears to be cut from the skinny and sassy twink/gay best friend mold. It’s to Campillo’s credit, as both a gay man and gay filmmaker, that he knows the tropes of gay and mainstream cinema dictate (as Vito Russo famously showed) that characters like this are usually written to be little more than wisecracking sidekicks. Instead of contributing another cliché, Campillo’s film places Sean’s story at the center of the narrative and shows how this fearless little sissy channels his fear and anger into action that ultimately saved millions of lives in subsequent generations. Even at the end, after tragedy has struck Sean, he still manages to stage one last fearless attack on the powers that be. What better cinematic role model could there be for queer kids – especially the fems who’ve been conditioned to think that they can’t stand up to bullies.

Plenty of directors could have made this tale a high-gloss Lifetime movie (see Freeheld), but did we really think Robin Campillo, the man behind 2013’s remarkable hustler drama Eastern Boys and 2004’s mind-altering zombie twist They Came Back, was going to deliver something tepid? Campillo conceives of this story on visual terms in some truly extraordinary ways, especially in an early sequence in which a first kiss between Nathan and Sean happens as an act of protest at a high-school condom distribution action, then segues almost immediately to a club where the duo dance and celebrate with friends then quickly hop into bed without the lighting changing at all – as if they’re still in the club. And just as suddenly we’re watching animated representations of cellular changes happening inside Sean’s body, just to drive home that even while he is in ecstasy, the disease is working overtime to achieve its goal. I can’t think of a sequence in a film that’s thrilled me more this entire awful year as it perfectly illustrates the complex theme of the film – that in banding together and fighting back against injustice, minorities wind up finding love and forming new families that sustain them (and occasionally aggravate them) in life-changing ways.

Take my experience of 2017. Even as every day brings us a fresh turd of terror plopped onto our unwilling faces, on a personal level, this year has brought me some of the most moving moments of my entire life: marching with protesters to fight Trump’s bigoted travel bans and healthcare dismantling efforts, campaigning for progressive candidates around the country, confronting corrupt New York State’s Trump-enabling Senators in person, raising money for queer and trans groups put at risk by the current administration’s callousness, and joining a resistance group made up of documentarians, graphic designers, filmmakers and other artists who are actively working to make media to help support causes and candidates around the country.

I’ve been continuously inspired by the ways my friends and acquaintances have risen up this year. I have – like the characters in BPM – formed new relationships with people that have enriched my life immeasurably. Though I would never say something stupid like, “This whole election thing was probably the best thing that could have happened, because everyone is getting woke,” as RuPaul did earlier in June (I’d gladly trade being woke and engaged for a President who wouldn’t be golfing while thousands in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are dying), I do think being engaged this way, and the bonds I’ve formed this year, will undoubtedly shape my future in complex yet positive ways – if the world somehow manages to survive this administration. Campillo’s film offers us hope, a model for resistance, and a reminder that we all live on the same planet, with (to my mind) no real reason for existing other than to make life better for those in pain.

With that in mind, I would like to close with a small action you, the reader, can undertake – either before or, preferably, after watching BPM. Here is list of charities and organizations that I have supported this year. All of these groups do amazing work for LGBT people, women and people of color in both New York City and beyond. Please consider donating to these groups, become a monthly supporter, even at a small level, and share on your social media feeds. The bottom line is, even if you can’t do a lot, do a little. Because, I mean, fuck this fucking year, am I right?

The Sero Project (link)
“Sero is a network of people with HIV and allies fighting for freedom from stigma and injustice. Sero is particularly focused on ending inappropriate criminal prosecutions of people with HIV, including for non-disclosure of their HIV status, potential or perceived HIV exposure or HIV transmission.”

Southerners on New Ground (SONG) (link)
“SONG builds a beloved community of LGBTQ people in the South who are ready and willing to do our part to challenge oppression in order to bring about liberation for ALL people. We develop leadership, build our membership base, and identify and carry out community organizing projects and campaigns. All of our work strives to bring together marginalized communities to work towards justice and liberation for all people.”

Fund Texas Choice (link)
Fund Texas Choice funds Texan’s travel to abortion clinics, especially necessary in areas where individuals from lower-income families have little access to clinics or providers. Fund Texas Choice provides travel arrangements for those who must travel out of state to have an abortion.

F2L (Freedom To Live) (link)
F2L are a group of community activists who work on behalf of queer and trans people of color targeted by the criminal justice system in New York state. Group members routinely raise money to bail people out of jail, pay for lawyers for people with no resources, put funds in commissary accounts of people who are incarcerated, and gather groups to pack the court in support of people during their trials.

St. Croix Foundation for Community Development (link)
“In response to the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Irma on the USVI and sister islands in the Caribbean, the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development stands firm in its support of local and regional relief and recovery efforts, and it aims to work in partnership with organizations that are undertaking efforts to restore communities and families…This fundraising effort will provide direct support for front-line relief, rescue and recovery efforts undertaken by entities in the USVI and Caribbean Basin. The Foundation will collaborate with on-the-ground organizations that are delivering much needed services and goods, supplies, and equipment for much needed use throughout the USVI and sister islands, and this fund will support that effort for the immediate and long-term.”

And last but not least:

ACT UP New York (link)
“We need your donations to pay for materials and other expenses for demonstrations. Our work for over 30 years has saved lives. But there is still a lot of work to do because of government negligence, unjust laws that stigmatize people living with HIV and pharma greed. You need to know your donation can help to save lives and prevent new infections. And if you want to see how we work come to our weekly Monday night 7pm meeting at the LGBTQ Community Center, 208 West 13th Street. Together we can help to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”

Adam Baran is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker whose short films have won awards and screened at LGBT film festivals around the world. He has received special acclaim for his music video Dirty Boots and his short film Jackpot, which won Best Short at the 2013 Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. He has written for MTV, VH1 and Logo, most notably the first season of the hit webseries Hunting Season. Adam is currently the co-curator of Queer/Art/Film, a monthly screening series at the IFC Center in New York City which has been praised in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Adam has programmed films for Outfest and NewFest, and is currently at work on his first feature.