The Heartbreaking Reality Behind 120BPM

Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM is a film that decidedly alternates between narrative styles and aesthetics time and again: at times documentary-like; at times a dark dream born from ‘the gay plague’ itself. It is at once documentary and fiction; and yet in so many ways it’s neither of those things. It is a spectre from a past reality: one that’s still far too haunting for today’s survivors of the AIDS epidemic.

120BPM©Celine Nieszawer_Photo646.jpg

120 BPM has been honoured with many accolades since its world premiere at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. But of these awards there is one that is so often overlooked, an award that is less about a film's artistry and more about its humanity: the François Chalais prize. Awarded to films dedicated to the values of life affirmation and journalism, since 1997 the Cannes Film Festival jury has awarded this prize to one film each year. Because above all, and beyond all its cinematic beauty, 120 BPM pays tribute to human lives: the thousands that were sacrificed and the millions (and counting) that have come to benefit from it since. 

120 BPM©Céline Nieszawer_Photo2.jpg

‘I knew people were dying of AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I knew nothing about ACT UP’, Arnaud Valois (the films endearing lead, Nathan) confessed after a special screening at Curzon Soho. And he’s not the only one. Anyone born after the ‘70s seems to have very limited awareness of the political struggles that went on at that time, or what activist groups like ACT UP fought for. While that is a sad fact, it is perhaps not so surprising: for the AIDS epidemic was treated with negligence and indifference by governments, pharma companies, and the media worldwide, right up to the early ‘90s.


We’ll Never Be Silent Again

To honour the real-life activists who fought for freedom, against prejudice and AIDS, Curzon DocDays has teamed up with Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest to host We’ll Never Be Silent Again, a series a short films and documentaries that celebrate the nameless among the crowds that fought for change, but did not live to see the freedoms we take for granted.



The shorts in this selection are mainly documentaries, with the exception of Pedagogue (1988), a comical exploration of the implications of Clause 28.

Through this clause, Thatcher’s government wished to outlaw the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in education and local government – not unlike Putin’s Russia 30 years into the future. Some people ask why films like 120 BPM are relevant today – and this is exactly why.

When AIDS was Funny

When AIDS was Funny

‘Having grown up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I remember AIDS was a big joke to people and the government for many years, because it was happening largely in the homosexual community and people considered homosexuals as subhuman freaks.’

This is the terrifying reality documented in When AIDS was Funny (2015), a truly unsettling account of the Reagan government’s response to AIDS through the early ‘80s.

Like a Prayer

Like a Prayer

Diva TV: Like A Prayer (1991) highlights women activist’s struggles in NYC, against the mass hysteria and against the racist, sexist and homophobic media.

AIDS became a reason for people to openly discuss safe sex; abortion; and the right to receive health care - regardless of social class, race, gender, or sexual orientation.

21st Century Nuns

21st Century Nuns

Education was an especially big concern, because very little was known about HIV or any potential cure back then, and because not enough people were talking about the epidemic.

This is a recurring theme in both Campillo’s 120 BPM and the light-hearted short 21st Century Nuns (1994), documenting the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: gay, male nuns ‘dedicated to the expiation of all stigmatic guilt, and the promulgation of universal joy’.

The Heterosexual Quiche of Peace

The Heterosexual Quiche of Peace

Finally, as portrayed in the bittersweet The Heterosexual Quiche of Peace (1983), even the ‘lesbian and gay’ community back then had its ‘straight’ allies; Campillo also acknowledges this in his own film.

Undeniably, there is something moving about people from seemingly distinct communities coming together and supporting each other’s rights. Another act of such inspiring humanity was the support shown to the striking British miners in 1984-1985 by LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). This is a central theme in Matthew Warchus’s Pride (2014), and is also brought up in Ben Lord and Steve Keeble’s After 82.


We'll Never Be Silent Again plays at Curzon Soho as part of DocDays. 


[Diego Aparicio is a UCL alumnus and writer of the film blog Observancy]

With thanks to the UCL Film & TV Society. Follow them on twitterfacebook and instagram.

After 82

What would you do if a deadly virus wiped out your circle of friends literally overnight? This is the situation that faced the gay community in the UK in the early 1980s. Young gay men who were living their lives were confronted with death and bigotry side by side. This is their stories told by the first generation of HIV survivors.

After '82

Five years in the making, Directors and Producers Ben Lord and Steve Keeble bring together on screen personal stories told from the heart of a community that witnessed devastation, on a daily basis as they watched their lovers, friends and family die one by one.

This is their story and what happened after '82.

DocDays screening:  Following a presentation of After 82 we will host a panel to discuss the issues raised, featuring:

  • Martyn Butler - Co-founder of the Terrence Higgins Trust
  • Jonathan Blake – One of the first people to be infected in the UK
  • Ian Green – CEO of The Terrence Higgins Trust and lives with the virus
  • Michelle Ross – Turner - Councillor, Founder of CliniQ

Monday 23 April, 6.30pm at Curzon Soho

Diego Aparicio