Based on some of the direct experience of its director Robin Campillo, 120 bpm is an affecting drama about ACT UP Paris.
ACT UP was formed in 1987 in New York but chapters spread across the US and Europe based on a militant, direct action approach to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. At the centre of this film is the relationship between two members — Sean, a founder member, HIV+, angry and militant and the new recruit Nathan, quieter, HIV- and new to the activist world.
We see the Parisian group protest against Mitterrand’s government’s laissez-faire attitude to sex education and its role in a contaminated blood scandal, and against those pharmaceutical companies who fail to release their research or do enough to ensure that new and pioneering drugs are available.
The group are always at pains to state that those who are going to suffer from the ignorance and silence of the government and big pharma are the “gays, the junkies, the immigrants, prisoners and prostitutes.”
Much of the film revolves around the weekly meetings of the group, held in a lecture theatre in Paris. Anyone involved in activism will recognise the dynamics at play in these scenes. Thibault, the chair of the group, is regularly accused of being a conservative influence, of holding people back from more militant action. Meanwhile other activists fall out, attack each other in bulletins or argue about what went wrong at a particular protest.
With a penchant for smearing, throwing and drenching people and buildings in fake blood, you see the realities of the kind of action that ACT UP pursued to fight the AIDS crisis.
When one activist dies, the group march, holding aloft their dead comrade’s picture, putting the blame on the government for the lack of action. The invasion of a local school which has refused to install a condom machine, with members providing guerrilla sex education and handing out literature to the students, is met with support from some teachers while others and their students are virulently hostile.
One student informs the activists she won’t get AIDS because she is not a “faggot.” It is one of the few moments of visceral homophobia in the film, most of which is reflected in the attitudes of those whom ACT UP are trying to fight.