This is one quilting bee that Judge Bill Gibron can support.
Every picture, no matter how minor, tells a story.
For Sally Lewinstein, it came in the guise of her best friend, fellow activist, and father to her child, Dr. Tom Waddell. For Vito Russo, it arrived with life partner Jeffrey Sevcik. Sallie Perryman also saw her soulmate and ex-drug addict husband Robert bring it into their lives. For David and Suzi Mandell, it swept in and tainted their talented, transcendent 11-year-old son, David Jr. For retired Navy officer Tracy Torrey, it appeared after a failed marriage with several children and the acceptance of his homosexuality and longtime companion David C. Campbell. And it also trapped him as well.
AIDS is a never-healing wound that walked into the lives of these radically divergent individuals, and set up residence in their loved one's biological borders, rendering once-vital existences ghostlike and skeletal. As an entire nation watched…and waited for the disease to actually matter to them on a personal—read: "straight, suburban"—level, thousands of people succumbed to a faceless killer that few understood or even acknowledged. As a memorial to these forgotten family members, the NAMES project started creating a quilt, a hand-woven testament to the spirit and energy sapped from the beloved victims of a hushed-up epidemic. Formed to "foster healing, heighten awareness, and inspire action in the struggle against HIV and AIDS" (taken directly from the organization's mission statement), this amazing memorial and the stories that go along with it are the subjects of one of the best documentary films of all time, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt.
Part of the genius of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Oscar-winning documentary is how it manages to encompass and evoke the entire AIDS epidemic and the widespread scope of its devastating effects by focusing on only a few small stories. Like the great literary minds who argue that truth is found in the details, not in a focus on the entire big picture, the skilled filmmakers here have chosen subjects and individuals who resonate with both commonality and specialty to present the face of this terrible illness in all its many facets. As the filmmakers weave together elements of the political response to the pandemic, and the background and actual construction of the quilt itself, we learn more about Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and all its horrible happenstance than we could ever glean from a scientific discussion or a full-blown agenda-based bit of propaganda. Though a great deal has changed in the 15 years since this documentary first stunned the motion picture industry, the worldwide impact of this sickness has become even more culturally saddening…and politically maddening. Yes, there have been better examinations of the overall outbreak and slow response by the government to acknowledge same (And the Band Played On comes to mind), and the quilt itself has been featured in enough newsmagazine mea culpas to assuage the guilt out of the media's own lax attitude. But what Common Threads does best is what its title insinuates: it links together the divergent stories of homosexual men, drug abusers, hemophiliacs, and children to create a portrait of pain as heartbreaking as it is unconscionable.
Many of the most infuriating moments in Common Threads don't come at the lack of a cure or the failure of medicine to offer an answer, it's in the blanket ignorance that followed the disclosure that straight people could get AIDS too. From the government officials who basically acknowledged that, until the voting electorate was affected by the disease, they would fail to prioritize it (said constituency being upper-class white conservatives), to the hate-mongering mongoloids like Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, who will never live down their "God's punishment for gays" philosophy (among other things), Common Threads calls out the cast of cruel characters and lets their "foot in the mouth" mannerisms speak for themselves. From the Ray case in Florida (a family had its home burned to the ground while schoolmates of the infected hemophiliac children rubbed strawberry-scented "AIDS protection" on their skin) to the near-hysterical reaction of Sara Lewinstein's family to the disclosure of her child's father's fate, selfish panic pervades many of the infuriating instances documented. While not really focusing so much on the activism angle (ACT-UP and the protests of other organizations are featured, but not flaunted), and showcasing little sympathy for the misdiagnosing medicos who were flying blind with bogus cures and less-than-professional bedside manners, Common Threads has a great many angry, angst-filled moments. But the battle-worn courage on the faces displayed here, spines stiff as they open their hearts and pour out their grief, is startling.
Yet this is not some seven-handkerchief hack-job playing on people's obvious, agonizing sentiments to make a pro-gay point. Indeed, the beauty in Epstein and Friedman's film is how gradually the emotion builds up and layers, slowly enveloping and involving you. By the time we get to the overwhelming 1988 display of the quilt on the mall in front of the White House, we are primed for catharsis. And when an elderly Italian couple take the stage to read their son's name and proclaim how much they dearly love their "shining" son, it's impossible to hold back the tears. But Mama Mandell has, perhaps, the most moving lines in the whole feature. As she passes by panel after panel, she imagines the size of the pain that resulted from all these deaths, and how overwhelming its dimensions must be. Then she discusses the lost lives, the lost talents, and the lost strength represented in the lovingly prepared creations—and the imagined magnitude is, again, incomprehensible.
This is the main theme of Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. Not only do Epstein and Friedman want to connect people from all walks of life with a camaraderie of loss and light, but they also want to question the very nature of the disease and why it strikes. The social stigma clarity in which AIDS worked its evil evisceration opens up entire prejudicial wounds that, even a decade and a half later, some legislators and lawmakers want to simply avoid. As a testament to the terrible price people paid for medical and federal illiteracy, Common Threads convinces us that it was incredibly negligent—almost criminally so—to let so many perish in the name of bias or financial filibustering.
New Yorker Films does a fine job dressing up this DVD in excellent, contextual clothing. In a sporadic, yet still fascinating, full-length audio commentary, the directors discuss the individual people interviewed, the financing process, and some alternative ideas on how to translate the quilt and its AIDS-related stories to the screen (the "100 short films" idea is the most intriguing). Featured storyteller and activist Vito Russo is seen giving his ACT-UP speech in its entirety, and it's amazing to witness the power and impact of his words. A photo gallery features images from the quilt, as well as the participants in the documentary. Epstein and Friedman also created a new documentary about the history of the spread of AIDS worldwide called Then and Now. Including interviews with several of the leading researchers in the field of the disease, it is a thoughtful and sometimes shocking expose.
Visually, Common Threads looks terrible. Obviously initial budget constraints meant that the film stock and technology used to capture the images would be less than stellar. But 15 years after the fact, with digital remastering and transfer tweaking a common practice among DVD companies, the treatment of this important title is shameful. Dirty, specked with grain and grit, and lacking any manner of color correction, the dull, depressing picture really undermines the spiritual magic of this movie. The sound, on the other hand, is crisp and clear in a Dolby Digital Stereo presentation that is more Mono than channel surfing.
In the years since this film's release, the tide has turned in the Westernized nations, many of whom are actually seeing the number of AIDS cases leveling off. But in Third World arenas, where superstition is strong and communication is weak, the plague has grown to unconscionable levels. Instead of thousands, millions are infected and dying everyday. And once again, as race and relative distance makes the madness easier to ignore, very little is being done to combat this catastrophe. So, sadly, it seems that even more fabric and flashing will be needed. As Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt tells us, this blanket just continues to grow larger, and the legacy of AIDS, more unnecessarily destructive.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Audio Commentary by Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
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