Best Documentary, 1989
Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Freidman
Common Threads is a powerful little movie that takes a very big subject – the AIDS epidemic in America – and deals with it in a very intimate way. Made in the late 1980s, the film is interesting to watch today in terms of assessing how far we’ve come in our awareness and treatment of AIDS, and how far we have left to go. This is an intense viewing experience and one which will leave you with a heavy heart, but it’s a film worth seeing – just make sure you have Kleenex close at hand.
To tell their story the filmmakers create a handful of narrative threads which they proceed to weave together. There are six interview subjects who are the loved ones of people who have passed away and are memorialized with patches in the AIDS quilt. In these personalized stories the film makes an effort to show a range of experiences and lifestyles to emphasize that the virus isn’t something that just affects one segment of the population regardless of how it was initially characterized by the media and society in general. Three of these stories are about gay men, one is about a former intravenous drug user, and one is about a 12-year-old boy who contracts the virus through a blood transfusion. These people come from all walks of life and have different experiences in dealing with the disease, but they all have one thing in common: their loss leaves behind a void that nothing can fill.
While all the stories are powerful and compelling, the story of 12-year-old David Mandell is particularly moving and is related to us by his parents. A haemophiliac, David already had a more difficult life than many children. When reports surface that some blood plasma used to treat haemophilia has been tainted, his parents find themselves in an impossible position: do they risk that he may be infected from blood transfusions or do they cease the treatments even though it’s necessary to keep him alive? David continued to receive transfusions and became infected and subsequently found himself fighting two battles: one against the disease, the other against the social stigma attached to it. There’s footage of a news interview with David in which he expresses his desire to be allowed to be a normal kid, to not be isolated and treated like an entity who must be feared. It’s a heartbreaking thing to see, this child forced to grow up so fast, to deal with issues that many adults aren’t emotionally equipped to deal with.
Interspersed with the personal stories is news footage detailing the growing awareness of AIDS, spanning a number of years as concern grows throughout society. In the earliest footage knowledge is spotty at best and little effort is made to find out more. The characterization of the virus as something which affects primarily the gay community and drug users stigmatizes it, allowing the government to turn away and the rest of society to follow suit. It’s only gradually, as the death toll mounts and grows at an alarming rate and begins to spread to all corners, that it becomes a major national concern. Vito Russo, one of the interview subjects who lost his partner and was infected himself, recalls his anger at a TIME cover story in the late 1980s announcing that AIDS is now a threat to anyone and everyone. For years it ravaged the gay community while the Reagan administration and the media buried their heads in the sand, refusing to acknowledge the growing epidemic that claimed thousands because it was a “gay disease.” Once it becomes clear that it isn’t specific to gays, suddenly it's news, suddenly it's worth talking about, and the anger expressed by Russo is entirely comprehensible. As much as the film is a tribute to those who have passed, it is also an indictment of those who could have and should have done something to raise awareness of the situation but dragged their feet, doing as little as possible.
From a technical standpoint, the filmmaking is relatively basic. There’s nothing particularly fancy about the construction of the narrative, but bells and whistles aren’t necessary. The emotional impact of this film is staggering – I don’t know how a person could see it and not be moved. Personally, I’m in awe of the strength of these storytellers, many of whom were infected themselves in addition to having lost a loved one. It's a great achievement which proves that sometimes simplicity is all that's necessary.