Last week, here at Candid we reviewed the exceptional drama 120 BPM by French director Robin Campillo. A beautfully insightful, poignant, if tragically sad look into the French arm of AIDS activist group ACT UP, which came to prominence in France in the early 90s. The film offers us an in-depth and uber realistic glimpse into the organisation's internal workings; from the weekly meetings, publicity stunts to demonstrations aimed at raising awareness around the AIDS crisis as well as forcing drug companies and politicians into action.
Campillo adds the personal element by depicting individual stories of various group members. We witness to the whole gamut of these young people's lives; from their fervent picketing and empassioned speeches to dancing to the early hours to engaging in intimate sex all the way to their detiriorating health, their evetual death to the tragic loss of their young lives. These honest representations galvanizes their activism even further,as it is simply is a matter of ‘life or death'.
We were privileged to chat to the film’s two main leads last week, Nahuel Perez Biscayart who plays Sean one of main activists of ACT UP who has AIDS and whose health is in decline and his love interest Nathan played by Arnaud Valois, a newly joined member. Arnaud and Nahuel talked to us about the importance of the film, activism, the AIDs crisis and the whole casting process.
So, it seems you have been doing promo for a while now?
Nahuel Pérez Biscayart: Since last May. I mean not every day, but still takes a big chunk of your life.
Arnaud Valois: Ten months. From May till like January, it has been quite intense.
The UK is the last place its being released?
N: I am going to Panama, where the film is being screened at a film festival and then that’s about it.
A: I maybe going to Tel Aviv as the movie is not released there, till May.
Are you enjoying the ride?
N: Yes because it’s a film that we both enjoy and feel passionate about.
A: The message is something we both totally agree with.
N: If it was a film where I didn’t care about the subject matter, then yes it would be quite painful.
The main thing that got to me about the film was the urgency. You felt the ‘life or death’ of the situation some of the characters were in. Do you think that urgency with HIV of the early 90s compared to that of now, is still there?
N: I don’t know about every single country in the world, in regards to AIDS, but in countries like here in the UK or in France… I would say not as much.
A: I guess then, they were dying of AIDS and now they are not, or at least directly from AIDS. And with the advancement of medication, you can live a long life so maybe there is less an urgency. It’s tricky as its now part of a new problem, young people perhaps think they can live with AIDS like the flu. But overall, of course its good there is a cocktail of drugs now, that help you lead a normal life. Before the medication in the early stages wasn’t working, people were dying like flies, countless people in the community loosing friends and family. Things were very tragic.
N: Real characters which the film is based on, they were confronted by death on the daily basis. I was talking about this in an earlier interview. In Argentina, we have our own version of Trump and in February there was no HIV medication. It was something stupidly simple, like they forgot to buy it or something. It’s shocking, but it goes to show, it’s not a priority. Then eventually this lack of care will lead to it becoming a priority again. Unfortunately!
I guess the pharmaceutical aspect which is addressed in the film is still the same. Companies seem to not want to disclose newly found medicine or research to the public easily is mainly because of profit reasons.
N: Well like countries in Africa if you are not rich, forget it. And you compare it Western countries like France or here (UK). There is prep. You have all the tools to eradicate the disease.
A: There is not as much information. In a way it’s not about death anymore like it was presented in the media when we were kids. And now…its strange, it’s like something from the past, especially for younger people.
The differences between your two characters is survival. Sean’s impetus is that if they found something whilst he was alive, it could save him. Whilst with Nathan, it was more about wanting to help because of past lover dying.
N: That’s why Nathan is less urged. That’s why in a certain moment, the characters argue about that. Sean is touchy and emotional saying: ‘What did you do? Why did you say that?’. It was more personal and far more intense for Sean. There is like a pacing and urgency that is related to the state of health, that my character was going through. That’s why the president of ACT UP and Sean, they sort of like each other but they don’t. Its not for concrete reason, it’s just because the president compared to my character is doing better health wise. This urgency is based on the rhythm of the state of your health.
Very interesting. It definitely explains the volatile relationship between your character and the ACT UP president (Thibault played by Antoine Reinartz).
N: He (Thibault) is HIV positive and he is talking about ecstasy, making cassette tapes for Nathan and doing things that people who are alive, healthy and having fun, do. Which is great and it’s all that generation should have been thinking about. But in the case of my character, he can’t even imagine himself going to a party within a month because he imagines he will be dead in that time. The distance the disease is between my charcater and Thibault's is totally different. AIDs or better yet, death is chasing my character, he is constantly having to deal with it, very closely, all the time.
It’s tragic that they were all so young. Campillo plays up on this, especally in the drawn out scenes of Sean dying.
A: Yes! they were all young. Jeremy one of the characters, you see die first, was only 18-19. They were all very young and naïve.
N: I don’t know what it’s like to be older, dying. I, my character, was just thinking about dying. With Robin I was at first very conscious that I look younger than my age. Like towards the end, if you shave me and I lose weight, its like seeing a boy or child dying. You see a weakness that is more related to a childlike nature. But it’s not stressing to the viewer, it adds to the tragedy. And it really worked for the film in the end. But yes, on a social level, old people that lived at the time seeing all these young people die, from something they didn’t know about, it must have been very shocking to them.
A prevalent theme was the manipulation of the media by ACT UP. The way they used stunts to generate attention. Do you think something like that also would work nowadays?
A: Actually, now there is more possibility to be informed. So many media platforms. So maybe yes?
N: But that’s only if you want to go searching for things. If you just get what mainstream media gives you. I feel that we don’t live in a free society at all.
A: Yes, but then, there was only mainstream media then. There were none of the online media.
N: That’s why they (ACT UP) were invading those media ‘moments’. It had more of an impact. But do you know what? People in Argentina that voted for the current president that we have; most of them are so ignorant. They are like Trump voters, watching Fox TV all the time. I think it is very important to invade those spaces.
Now in Argentina abortion is a very prevalent topic, so you have many feminists going to mainstream TV programmes to discuss the issue. Famous people talking about abortion at 3pm on daytime show with housewives watching. Before they use to talk about safe topics such as the prince and the queen or whatever, now you seem very extreme feminists talking about abortion on national television. I can’t explain to you how radical that is. It’s like the end of the world, the apocalypse for traditional people.
However personally I feel very alienated from the ‘one truth’ mainstream media. The fact that we think we live in democracy and we feel we have access to all the information, that we are concerned with all the points of views and that’s not really the case.
A: Or that we are able to deal with all these opposing views.
N: When you add the element of stakes, high risk things such as death, that’s the only way you can be heard. That’s my take on it. Nobody is going to come knocking on your door and say ‘do you want any more rights?’ It’s always someone have to grab it, fight for it.
In the stunts and in their picketing, there was a lot of use of blood.
A: It was mainly to scare people.
N: That’s why you see the policemen use gloves, when they arrive on the scene.
A: They are afraid, touching someone would give you AIDS. In the beginning people were not informed that you couldnt get it from kissing, touching, spitting etc.
N: That’s why in the demonstration scenes they were blatantly kissing. It was a political gesture, to show that you wouldn’t get infected. It was all about shocking. They were crazy faggot and dykes; making themselves visible in the society at that time. They were playing with that shock and on top of that, they add the element of blood.
A: The blood was making it a spectacle.
N: In the early 90s, the only exposure an event got was this short TV news segments, as part of a main news shows and then off to the next piece of news. So, in a way with ACT UP, the shock, the message had to be clear enough to breakthrough in that short space of airtime.
A: I would also add, that these types of campaigning: the stunts, the blood, it was really new for France. It’s a very American, brash way of picketing. It’s not French at all. So, for the media and the TV crews it was something truly new and interesting to film. ACT UP was influential in terms of campaigning in France, introducing new ways of protesting.
I understand that Robin had been an ACT UP member at the time and that Nathan's character is based on him.
N: And you can tell; he captures the essence of those meetings perfectly. He has been involved throughout all aspects of the film. Writing, directing, producing and you can totally see why.
I read an interview, that the casting process for you Arnaud was a long process.
A: I had given up acting and out of the blue I'm invited to audition for this part. It was a three and a half month of auditioning, so I did get a bit fed-up with the whole process by the end.
N: Robin wanted to get everything right. He wasn’t just looking for one actor, he was looking for pairs, couples, groups of people.
A: I think for Nathan, who is a bit inspired by Robin himself and his memories, it was difficult for him to find someone to embody him completely. It took a bit of time for him to say ok; to realize that it’s not going to be an exact representation. When I finally said, ‘I’m stopping the auditions, I’ve had enough of this’, it was wake up call and he said ‘ok, it’s you’.
N: Robin said once, that for all the characters in the film, the ones who died back then, he found it easier to find actors for them, as he felt he was not betraying anybody because they were dead. Whereas people that were still alive, he was having a lot more difficulty.
Are these long auditions ever enjoyable?
N: I really enjoyed it. For me it was a much shorter process, but it felt that I was really working for a proper result. It wasn’t like ‘it’s just me and I’m being judged and I had to pull out a major performance on my own’. I was really feeling that we were spending time together with the actors and Robin. Robin was very generous. He was not trying to find something, but instead give us something so that we could digest that into something that would later appear in the scenes. To me it was a very creative process, but I must admit, it was easier for me, than for Arnaud and other actors because he confirmed me after three workshops.
A: For me it was quite painful. Clearly there is a creative process in casting, but it’s just when it gets too long. Maybe if after a third audition you should get paid something … (laughs)
120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) is out now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.